Unlocking the Locks: Willamette Falls, Oregon

By Special Contributor posted 06-01-2017 14:28


By Peggy Sigler and Sandy Carter

Located in Clackamas County, on the southeastern edge of Portland, Oregon, the magnificent Willamette Falls, carved from basalt during the Ice Age floods, create a natural stopping place on the navigable Willamette River. Since time immemorial, indigenous people have taken salmon with dipnets from the falls’ cascading waters and harvested Pacific Lamprey from among the rocks. Trappers, settlers, and entrepreneurs were first drawn to the banks of the Willamette River at the powerful falls two centuries ago. And the terminus of the Oregon Trail, our nation’s greatest overland migration route, lies in this fertile valley. The nation’s first long-distance transmission of electricity happened here, and an 1895 hydropower plant still produces power.


Willamette Falls in June 2012. | Credit: Peggy Sigler

Today the falls naturally divide the urban Portland-metropolitan area from rural, agricultural, and pristine lands upstream. The Falls Legacy Project, underway on the eastern shore, seeks to adaptively reuse a former paper mill. The entire region is recognized as a State Heritage Area, and locals are also pursuing National Heritage Area status.

Prior to 1873, when the Willamette Falls Navigation Canal and Locks were built as a private venture, freight and passengers were portaged around the falls. By 1915 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) had taken ownership of the locks to provide free transit that would encourage commerce. For decades, immense amounts of cargo—primarily winter wheat, produce, and log rafts from the rich forest lands upstream—were shuttled through the locks’ four chambers to national and international ports.

Willamette Falls Locks in 1899. | Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Portland District Collection

In recent decades, declining commercial tonnage and maintenance increasingly deferred by the USACE left the safety of the gudgeon anchors—the giant hinges that secure the lock gates and allow them to swing—in question, despite $2.7 million in stimulus funds being invested in inspections and repairs in 2009. In December 2011 the USACE suddenly closed the locks, effectively cutting the Willamette River in two, preventing both commercial and recreational navigation past the falls. Tourist excursions, recreational paddlers, agricultural barges, and marine construction rigs were stranded.

Recreational craft in the locks circa 1955 with waterfall-wicket gates visible. | Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Portland District Collection

A Growing Cadre of Allies

The unexpected and indefinite closure of the oldest operational by-pass locks in the nation catalyzed supporters to work together for the locks’ repair and reopening. In 2012 Restore Oregon named the locks a “Most Endangered Place,” which helped draw attention to their plight. The same year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation recognized the imperiled locks as one of the first National Treasures, bringing focus and resources to the cause.

The National Trust provided staff support for advocacy efforts, reinvigorated local stakeholders, and accelerated congressional involvement. The Trust’s legal and public affairs staff led conversations with the USACE, and marketing professionals participated in public outreach. With the assistance of former Oregon Representative Darlene Hooley and former state legislator Lisa Naito, communities up and down the river wrote letters of support and committed funds for advocacy and repairs. The state legislature created a task force staffed by Oregon Solutions.


2006 Sternwheeler Rose at Lock Fest. | Credit: Sandy Carter

Guided by the National Trust, local stakeholders successfully pressured the USACE to conduct the long-overdue National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) Section 106 process, which requires federal agencies to consider impact on properties in their care that are listed on or eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The process was frustratingly slow, but ultimately fruitful, resulting in late 2016 in a signed Memorandum of Agreement between the USACE and various stakeholders. The memorandum outlines the adverse effects of the 2011 closure on the locks’ historic attributes and functions—such as to the history associated with navigation and transportation; to the engineering values of the resource; on tribes’ ability to maintain certain aspects of their traditional cultures; on the aspects of setting, association, and feeling that originally made the locks eligible for listing on the National Register; and potentially to the character-defining design, materials, features, and workmanship of the locks. The memorandum also lists specific steps for mitigating those effects, including engineering and environmental studies, due diligence for disposition, continued care per NHPA Section 110, public tours and presentation, Historic American Engineering Record documentation, conservation of museum collections, providing tribes alternative transit for canoe journeys, developing a commemorative documentary or book, and hosting regular meetings with signatories and concurring parties.

Disposition Study and Response Underway

The USACE, meanwhile, has been very clear that it wants to “dispose” of the locks—that is, remove the locks from their care—because they don’t provide the level of national economic benefit required to justify federal investment. It is currently conducting a disposition study intended to be a national pilot for historic USACE properties that no longer see tonnages that would justify navigational funding. Eight options have been vetted, and the USACE plans to release the preliminary study and National Environmental Policy Act reports for public comment in May 2017. Seeking the least expensive option, the USACE will likely only propose “decommissioning with stabilization” to protect upriver water levels or “continued closure” in caretaker status. The public comment period will once again task stakeholders with advocating for repair and transfer of the locks to a local entity. If not successful in identifying a new owner, the USACE will begin a process to decommission and permanently close or remove the locks.

Advocacy tour. Front, left to right: Gary Schmidt, Jerry Carroll, Sandy Carter, Peggy Sigler, Congressman Kurt Schrader, Colonel Aguilar, Barb Pahl, Congresswoman Darlene Hooley. Back, left to right: Kevin Brice, Anthony Veerkamp, Brian Spak, Louis Landre, Andy Cutugno. | Credit: Peggy Sigler

Spurred by the regional and national attention, and supported by an increasing breadth of allies and preservation advocates, the Willamette Falls Heritage Foundation and the One Willamette River Coalition have reheated their partnership with Clackamas County. The county, which owns and operates the historic Canby Ferry upstream from the locks, also wants to see the locks inspected, repaired, and opened and operated on a consistent basis. Along with the National Trust, the advocacy groups and the county convened the Willamette Falls Locks Working Group which has been coordinating advocacy efforts. Based on the recommendation of the task force, the working group is asking the 2017 Oregon legislature to form a Willamette Falls Locks Commission. The commission, representing various agencies, would have the ability negotiate with USACE—unlike the task force or working group themselves—to reach an agreement on final “disposal” of the historic facility, hopefully into the hands of a new owner-operator.

If the locks are repaired and reopened, paddlers on the Willamette River National Water Trail will be able to make the journey from Corvallis to Portland along one of the most beautiful rivers in the United States. Once again, companies whose tugs have plied the river for more than a century will be able to move agricultural products and gravel for infrastructure projects down to Portland. Jet boats and tourist boats will carry visitors up to and around the stunning Willamette Falls to soak up the breathtaking scenery or dock at the same Oregon City location where sternwheeler steamboats once disembarked their passengers. The Corvallis-to-Portland Row will be able once more to tuck its dozens of rowing sculls into the locks’ four narrow chambers, oars spread like water skippers.

In 2007 crew sculls in the fourth chamber at Lock Fest. | Credit: Sandy Carte

Please contact Oregon legislators, thank them for their ongoing support, and encourage them to back S.B. 256 to form the Willamette Falls Locks Commission. Also contact your federal representatives and encourage them to support a USACE conclusion that leads to the restoration and reopening of the locks.

The reports released by USACE are available for review and for public comment. Send comments referencing public notice CENWP-PM-E-17-01 to willamettefallslocks[at]usace.army.mil by July 12 (the deadline was extended), and please copy the Willamette Falls Locks Working Group at twilson2[at]clackamas.us. With strong public support, we can ensure the revitalization of a dynamic river community that could once again span the falls and connect the upper and lower Willamette River for vibrant recreation, transportation, and commercial uses. 

Peggy Sigler, the former National Trust for Historic Preservation Oregon Field Officer, and Sandy Carter, who serves on the board of directors for the Willamette Falls Heritage Foundation and is a founder of the One Willamette River Coalition, are both members of the Willamette Falls Locks Working Group and the Willamette Falls Locks State Task Force.

#NationalTreasure #ArmyCorpofEngineers

Get Connected

Discuss this blog post and more on Forum’s new online community. Sign up now.