Willamette Falls, Oregon City
Willamette Falls is the largest volume waterfall in the Pacific Northwest. A magnificent horseshoe-shaped fall of some 1,500 feet wide and 40 feet high, the falls was long used by Native Americans as a traditional fishing site. They built villages lured by migratory fish like salmon and lamprey.
A natural trans-shipping center between the upper and lower Willamette Rivers and a point of power production generated from the fall of the water over the falls led to industrialization of the area from the early days of white settlement. The Oregon Woolen Manufacturing Company was one of the first on the scene developing a four-story brick building - largest industrial plant on the West Coast at the time - in 1864. Paper mills and electric plants - 1888 - followed in the succeeding years. The old McLoughlin House was picked up and moved to the upper terrace of Oregon City in 1909 to make room for more industrial development. The paper mill on the Oregon City side went bankrupt in 2009, closing for good in 2011 - the mill on the West Linn side still operates, as does the power plant, which dates to 1895. To help the fish get past all of the industrialization, fish ladders were built here as early as 1882.
Now, after a century of industrial use, local government agencies are looking into converting the 22 acre site on the Oregon City side into a multi-use center maintaining historical features, repairing riparian habitats, developing public access and creating new commercial venues.
Until now, one could view the falls from a distance - there is a good viewpoint on OR 99 above the Oregon City side and off of I-205 northbound from the West Linn side - or from your boat at the base of the falls. My wife had an opportunity to tour the site with local government officials - most of the pictures and videos are from her - as they move forward in transforming the area. Several of the old factory buildings would be re-used in new ways. The public access is proposed to link with other paths up- and downstream from the falls. An up-close view of the falls would be available from a walk atop the dam that controls the flow of water over the falls, providing constant flow to the remaining mill and electric plant on the West Linn side. You would walk out to the foundation of the first electric plant - floods have taken away most of the other structures, whose remains you can see - it closed in 1897 - next to the falls.
The dam is owned by Portland General Electric Company which developed the electric plants back in the late 19th century. They are amenable to the public having access on the walk atop the dam to an overlook on the edge of the horseshoe. For a great view of the falls, see the Youtube video of the falls from a drone. The website below shows the industrial development of the falls.
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.