Lock Star: The Fight to Save Willamette Falls

The National Trust joins local preservationists to save the 141-year-old Willamette Falls Navigation Canal and Locks.

For boats traveling the Willamette River in the 1800s, the Willamette Falls presented a formidable obstacle. Spanning the river between Oregon City, Ore., and what is now West Linn, Ore., the horseshoe-shaped ridge and its 40-foot drop made it nearly impossible to transport passengers and goods between the river’s upper and lower sections -- that is, until the Willamette Falls Navigation Canal and Locks opened on Jan. 1, 1873.

Built with locally quarried basalt blocks, the locks and canal are among the oldest multi-lift bypass locks systems in the country. They provided a safe, efficient way to travel the river, transforming Oregon’s economy and contributing to its growth. Sawmills, as well as grist, woolen, and paper mills, were built around the falls; over time, as commercial use of the river subsided, it became a popular recreational site.

“This little bypass canal is like the mouse who roared,” says Sandy Carter, vice president of Willamette Falls Heritage Foundation and facilitator for its One Willamette River Coalition advisory committee.

But in 2007, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has owned the National Register–listed property since 1915, was staggered by a sharp decrease in funding for the canal and locks. (Allocations are determined by annual tonnage, or the total weight of all the cargo that passes through the system.) As a result, the site was largely closed, save for routine inspections. Federal stimulus money in 2009 did enable the Army Corps to finish inspecting and repairing the locks’ seven gates, which were inspired by a leaf-gate design credited to Leonardo da Vinci.

Two years later, however, an inspection revealed significant corrosion on the gudgeon anchors. In December 2011, the canal and locks were deemed non-operational. “We saw enough evidence of corrosion that we could not guarantee infrastructure safety or personal safety for anyone there,” says Diana J. Fredlund, public affairs specialist with the Army Corps’ Portland district.

Carter and other community members, who have long been concerned about the future of the canal and locks, continued rallying for what Carter calls “one of the most important and impressive existing heritage resources around Willamette Falls.”

Since 2004, local advocates have been organizing Lock Fest, an educational event meant to generate support for the canal and locks with history exhibits, information booths, music, and tours.

“We want to make everyone aware of how great the locks are,” Carter says, “because if people don’t know about something, they can’t save it.”

When the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared the site a National Treasure in 2012, Carter says the local efforts, which had been largely volunteer-driven, received a major boost. “It was a huge breakthrough,” she says. The National Trust’s Oregon field officer, Peggy Sigler, brought her expertise to the project and helped initiate a retroactive Section 106 review to study the effects of changes to the historic property.

Sigler, Carter, and others currently are working with the Army Corps to identify a new owner for the site. “We want to see the canal and locks open on a regular basis for all boats and all users, and to see them maintained and preserved in their original state,” Sigler says.

But as it stands today, Fredlund says, the Army Corps believes federal regulations may require that they restore the site to working condition before  reauthorizing it and turning it over to new owners. With the price tag for this effort at an estimated $3 to $5 million, and with limited funding available, it’s a difficult prospect.

“We’re trying to find the right way to work through this,” Fredlund says, “but we’re not sure what that is yet.”

Carter hopes that one day the area around Willamette Falls will again welcome barges and commercial freighters, as well as boaters, kayakers, and others who enjoy the area’s natural beauty.

“There aren’t many places in America where we still have the potential for both commercial and recreational use of a historic lock,” she says. “And around here, our history and our stories are rooted in the river and the locks and the mills.”

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