Water wheel near Gates will soon keep on turnin’

Special Reports

The Niagara Heights Water Wheel has been a fixture along Hwy 22 for decades

GATES, Ore. (KOIN) — Blink and you’ll miss it. The bright red wheel is nestled behind a swath of trees on the north side of Highway 22 between Gates and Detroit. But for those who make the drive often, heading to the lake in the summer and the snow in the winter, it’s a treasured part of the scenery that attracts families, road trippers, and even professional photographers. Now it’s getting a makeover.

“It’s been here forever,” Don Baird, a longtime Gates resident, said. “It’s an iconic structure and it’s been here certainly as long as I have.”

Forever might be a stretch. According to Colby Lamb, who owns the property on Niagara Heights Road now, there was originally a wooden wheel, but it failed, possibly due to water damage. The owner at that time, Henry Hiebert, bought a new metal wheel from Mike Adams Construction in Stayton in 1984. Crews hauled out to the site in pieces and welded it together on the spot. Lamb said it cost $8,000 back then and estimates it would be closer to $25,000 today.

The wheel didn’t serve any purpose, Lamb said. It was just a roadside attraction.

“(Hiebert) was a community-oriented guy and he just loved doing stuff like this,” Lamb said.

When Lamb looked into purchasing the property a couple years ago, he said he didn’t even realize he would be inheriting the wheel. The property has an odd layout, and the wheel wasn’t advertised. But when the seller told Lamb, it was like Christmas morning. He said he’s spent decades working in machine shops and doing computer-controlled machining to make parts for everything from aerospace (Boeing, Grumman, Northrop) to electronics.

“You can imagine how I felt falling into a project like this,” he said with a wide smile. “It was great.”

He likes to refer to the wheel as “Proud Mary,” from the Creedence Clearwater Revival song.

Until Lamb moved in, Baird said the wheel hadn’t been turning for years.

It wasn’t technically broken, but whenever Lamb ran it, he said it made a “very bad sound” and he wasn’t sure if it was damaging the inner workings.

niagara heights water wheel repair
Colby Lamb has gotten a lot of help from the community on his quest to restore the Niagara Heights Water Wheel (Colby Lamb)

Restoring the wheel has been a long, laborious process, but Lamb has benefited from the support of the community. A local lumber company donated a new shaft for the wheel, Lamb said. A construction company changed the bearings for him. And in September, after months of waiting and preparation, he finally got a new axle put in.

There’s a lot of work still to be done, and Lamb estimates the total cost will end up at $4,040, including a full paint job next spring. At last check, his GoFundMe had raised $1,220, and some people wrote him checks.

In the meantime, Lamb plans to get the Christmas lights put up before the holidays, another big draw for families and photographers. When passerby pull off into the driveway, he is more than happy to talk to them about the history of the wheel.

“I’ve met a lot of professional photographers here,” he said. “If I see somebody setting up a tripod I come down and try to talk him out of his best picture.”

niagara heights water wheel christmas
Colby likes to decorate the wheel with Christmas lights around the holidays (Colby Lamb)

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