Recent News for the Willamette Falls Locks


Living on borrowed time

After a temporary reprieve, supporters hope tourism and commerce can keep the Willamette Falls Locks open for good

Thursday, May 18, 2006

In 1995, Dave Denman, then a manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Portland, decided to leave his job and head downriver to become an operator at the Willamette Falls Locks in West Linn.

"I thought it'd be a good way to start my retirement," he said. "You wore Levis and didn't care if you got dirty."

Denman grew close to his crew and came to enjoy the variety of traffic that came through the locks, ranging from barge drivers to sheriff's deputies to the "river rats" -- people who make their living doing odd jobs on the water. He retired in 2000 and since has moved from West Linn to Lake Oswego, but retains his love for the lock-and-gate system that allows barges and pleasure boats to get around the 40-foot falls.

"The people that went through the locks were a prime source of conversation and humor," he said. "We jokingly said that the first mate on some of those ships was Jack Daniel's or Budweiser."

That traffic has been slowing as the businesses that once used the river turn to highways and rail to shuttle their products up and down the Willamette Valley. Federal officials slashed the locks' budget and talk about closing them for good.

But a group of dedicated preservationists is fighting to keep the locks open, saying the facility is an important cultural and historical resource. Shutting the locks would cut off the northern half of the river from the southern half and set back efforts to develop river-based tourism, they say.

Last month, the group won a significant victory: Members persuaded the Oregon Department of Transportation to contribute $318,000 to the locks' maintenance and operation. Local businesses and governments kicked in $101,000. The money will be enough to keep the locks open from June to October through 2007.

After that, it's back to living on borrowed time.

Even before the locks, the Willamette River was a vital artery of commerce, said Alan Lewis of West Linn, who runs tours through the locks. Wheat and lumber were transported to the ocean via the Willamette and Columbia rivers and went as far as California and Hawaii. To avoid the falls, merchants unloaded their cargo onto horse-drawn trucks onshore and brought them down to the other side of the falls, then reloaded the cargo onto a ship waiting near the bottom of the falls. That meant twice as many boats were needed to serve the river route.

A private company opened the locks, which were modeled after a Leonardo da Vinci design, for business in 1873. Before they were built, the Willamette Falls split the river in two. It was virtually impossible to traverse the falls; many of those who did, purposely or accidentally, perished.

Ownership of the locks changed hands several times. In 1915, the Army Corps of Engineers bought them for $350,000, Lewis said.

A hydraulic operating system has replaced a hand crank to open the locks' gates, but the walls still are lined with the original rocks, mined from a quarry in Carver. European masons cut and shaped the stones, said Sandy Carter, chairwoman of the Willamette Falls Heritage Foundation.

Carter's grandfather, Robert E. Hickson, headed the Portland district of the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II and had jurisdiction over the Willamette Falls Locks. When she went to the coast as a child, Carter said, she would join her family in building miniature dams and canals in the sand.

"I'm just so fond of them," she said of the locks. "They're a treasure that no one knows about. Abandonment is a huge black hole."

Lock usage peaked in 1943, when 2.2 million tons of freight passed through. By 1999, that number had shrunk to 893 tons, according to an economic impact analysis prepared for the Clackamas County Tourism Development Council in 2004.

A change in ownership of the paper mill now known as West Linn Paper Co. in 1996 led to the elimination of barges for transporting pulp and other products. Federal officials dole out financing for locks operations based on tonnage, so a reduction in money soon followed.

Until the current federal budget year, U.S. Rep. Darlene Hooley, D-Ore., was able to push through Congress several annual supplemental budget requests for the locks. But last year, she was unsuccessful, and the locks received $65,000.

A temporary reprieve came in the guise of a committee formed by Gov. Ted Kulongoski to bring together businesses, government officials and nonprofit organizations to develop solutions to local problems. The Oregon Solutions task force persuaded state transportation officials and private groups to keep the locks open five days a week during the summer through 2007.

Carter and others are pinning their hopes on tourism and the price of gasoline to persuade agencies and nongovernment entities to keep the locks going. Carter said that as the price of gas increases, companies that rely on trucks to get their products through Oregon will turn to the river to save money.

But managers at West Linn Paper said that's unlikely, because using the highway instead of the river saves the company millions.

"I'm not sure I grasp what would make that change so dramatically," said facilities manager John Otnes, who said the company supports efforts to keep the locks open for historic and cultural reasons. "The locks really don't help us directly as a business."

Local tourism boosters envision the locks as a sort of gateway to cultural draws in the southwest suburbs, such as the falls and the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Oregon City. They say use by pleasure boaters will increase if the locks stay open.

Federal officials, Carter and others said, should redesign their funding criteria to take into account the money that tourism can bring if the locks stay open. The 2004 study estimated that recreational boats and passenger boats would bring between 13,320 and 20,730 passengers a year if the locks were open full time.

"I tell people the locks are sleeping right now; they're taking a nap between economies," Carter said. "But they need to be kept alive."

©2006 The Oregonian