Where We Live: Willamette Falls, past, present and future


Willamette Falls sits between Oregon City and West Linn

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Willamette Falls is a window into Oregon history.

The natural waterfall, which sits between Oregon City and West Linn, once marked the finish line for many Oregon Trail pioneers and it was already a popular settler destination by the time a man named John McLoughlin founded Oregon City in 1842.

Commerce exploded when the locks were built in 1873. The Willamette River was the freeway of Oregon.

John McLoughlin, the founder of Oregon City. (Courtesy to KOIN)

Sandy Carter is a 4th-generation Oregonian. Her grandfather was an Army engineer at the falls in the 1930s. The massive old buildings surrounding the falls point to its industrial past.

“I feel really deeply attached to this place,” Carter said. “It’s been a thriving industrial site for a long time.”

Carter said Willamette Falls was a hub for international trade in the 1860s and the following 2 decades. Paper mills, grist mills, flour mills and hydroelectric plants dominated.

Willamette Falls and Willamette Falls Locks, Sept. 27, 2019. (KOIN)

PGE still produces power on the West Linn side of the river and the Old West Linn Paper Mill recently reopened as the Willamette Falls Paper Company.

Sandy Carter at Willamette Falls, Sept. 27, 2019. (KOIN)

“I think it’s wonderful,” Carter said. “I was so happy to see the steam coming out of those chimneys again.”

But long before the area became home to settlers and industry, Native American fishing villages were reaping the rewards of the river’s bounty.

The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde have now regained ceremonial fishing rights at the falls, building a fishing platform in 2018.

The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde at the Willamette Falls. (Courtesy of Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde)

“The keepers of the falls were my grandfathers,” said Grand Ronde Tribal Chair Cheryle Kennedy. “They basically met and engaged with other tribes. We knew there was a wealth of fish — this was a rich industry — so it was a place of commerce for us.”

Grand Ronde Tribal Chairman Cheryle Kennedy. (Courtesy of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde)

The Grand Ronde have also purchased the 23-acre Blue Heron Paper Mill site, which closed in 2011. They also own Spirit Mountain Casino but told KOIN 6 News there are no plans for a casino at the old paper mill site in Oregon City.

But the Grand Ronde do have a future vision for the land.

They’re working with Metro and Oregon City on plans for a riverwalk and pedestrian plaza with views of the falls. There are also efforts underway to repair and reopen the Willamette Falls Locks.

Carter thinks Willamette Falls can embrace tourism, industry and Native American heritage simultaneously.

“I think they can be made compatible and I think if they are made compatible, it’s potentially a site that has it all,” she said.

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