Willamette Falls was one of the reasons why Oregon City was a main attraction for those coming from the east. Here, early sawmills, woolen mills, and other industry used the power of the falls to create Oregon's first industrial area.
Today, the falls are still used that way: Portland General Electric still runs its very old powerhouse here, dating from the very late 1800s.
The bad news is that they have been heavily modified from their natural state over the years in order to provide more industrial power and less of a barrier to navigation and fishing.
There are some attempts to undo some of these effects during the last few years.
In the 1980s, a decision was made to light the falls with high intensity lighting from the paper mills on each side of the river.
There are several places to view the falls, including highway 99E, the northbound Interstate 205 view point in West Linn, and the downtown Oregon City sidewalk along the Willamette River. If you are northbound on I-205 through the area, you will see signs indicating an exit. Due to blockage from tree branches, you will have to stand on the wall to get a view of the falls if you are visiting when the leaves are on the trees. The best point is approximately 100 feet from the southern end of the view point. Further north, the falls are blocked by trees.
Another viewpoint is the Oregon City - West Linn bridge. Park in downtown Oregon City and walk across the walkway on the south side of the old arch bridge linking the two cities.
The Willamette Falls Heritage Foundation (web site below) features much about the history of the falls and some information about the locks to allow boats to go around the falls.
Willamette Falls is one of the largest by volume waterfalls in the pacific northwest. It has a crest of about 470 feet (143 m) wide and carries a large portion of the Willamette River. The fall itself is only 42 feet (12 m) but the volume makes up for it.
The shame is that this waterfall has been turned into an industrial park. Hydro power and the surrounding banks with various other industrial plants make this one of the most difficult waterfalls to get an unobstructed view of.
I think many of the best views would be had by boat or on areas that the public is not permitted. If this waterfall was ever to be developed for the public to view it would certainly be a sight to see.