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Oregonlive.com reports that the Army Corps of Engineers has deemed the Willamette Falls Locks, built in 1873, to be "non-operational."  The bottom line is that the pins on which the lock doors hinge are deteriorated and need $2,000,000 worth of work to replace.  The CoE doesn't think the river traffic justifies the expenditure (and apparently neither does Congress), and so these locks will be closed, apparently permanently.

Thus for the first time since 1873, it will be impossible to travel by water up the Willamette river past Willamette Falls.  Some measure of how far back this goes comes from images of the past.

773px-Oregon_City_and_Willamette_Falls,_1867
      Image 1, Oregon City, 1867
Image 1 is an 1867 photograph taken by Carleton Watkins (1829-1916).  This looks west across the Willamette River and the falls at Oregon City.  The locks have not yet been built, but a boat basin had been constructed on the upper side of the falls.  A sternwheeler can be seen in the upper river at the left, and another sternwheeler can be seen in the lower river on the right.  Goods such as farming implements would be taken from Portland by steamboat to just below the falls, as seen here, unloaded and then taken across the portage and loaded again on another vessel bound upriver.  The reverse would be followed for goods, typically agricultural such as wheat, headed downriver.  At first this was done by mule teams, but later a system of ramps was developed to allow a more rapid transfer.  Passengers of course would also have to disembark and reembark.  
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20081116084333!Oregon_City_boat_basin_above_falls_1867
      Image 2, Oregon City, 1867, looking northwest.
Image 2 shows the same vessel and many of the same structures seen in image 1.  We can see from image 2 that the steamboat visible in Image 1 above the falls in the boat basin is actually still under construction.  Workmen can be seen putting canvas covering on the upper deck and the sternwheel has not been installed.  The tramway running alongside the water was part of the system of cargo transshipment.  Image 2 was captured on a large glass plate negative, and while it is not readily apparent on-line, the original showed extraordinary high-resolution detail which this particular type of photography permitted when used by an expert, as Carleton Watkins was.  

Harvest_Queen_(sternwheeler)_ca_1910
      Image 3, Harvest Queen, circa 1900, at Portland, OR
Image 2 is also important in that its one of the earliest photographs of which I am aware showing a steamboat of the Columbia River type under construction.  This type of vessel originated in the 1850s on the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, and was widely followed throughout the Pacific Northwest as well as Alaska, British Columbia, and Alberta.

Image 3 shows one of the later vessels of this type, the magnificent Harvest Queen, here shown at Portland, backing away from a landing on an excursion cruise.  Transportation afficionadoes will note the features of this type (high bow, sternwheel, single smokestack over boiler located in forward end of boat, pilot house located forward of smokestack, and enclosed lower deck).  (Vessels of this size rarely proceeded further south than Portland on the Willamette.  A classic example of the Columbia river type can still be seen today at Kaslo, BC, is the Moyie, built in 1898.

Governor_Grover_(sternwheeler)
      Image 4, West Linn, Oregon, March 1873, looking southeast.
The Locks were built on the west side of the falls, which required blasting through the heavy basalt rock, and were completed in late 1872.  Image 3 shows the sternwheeler Governor Grover transiting the locks headed north (downriver) in March 1873.  

Image 4 looks southeast towards the falls and to a town just visible in this photograph through the smoke from the funnel.  This settlement was called Canemah, an historic location once used as a canoe stopping place by the First Nations.  Canemah, now a part of Oregon City was where many early sternwheelers were build to operate on the Willamette River as the sole means of mechanical transportation until the construction of railroads in the Willamette Valley.

800px-Willamette_Falls_Locks_1915
      Image 5, West Linn, Oregon, 1915.
By 1915, heavy industrialization had grown up around Willamette Falls, including one of the first hydro-electric power generation plants.  Image 5 is a colorized postcard mailed in 1915, but probably produced at least a year earlier (most of these early postcards were made in Germany, and the trade in the cards was cut off in World War 1).  You can see the many changes between 1873, when the area around the locks was simply bare basalt.  Passengers rarely travelled by steamboat through the locks by ths time, preferring to take the train.  The steamboat shown here in the locks is probably working as a towboat for the barges ahead of the boat.

Over the years, the locks were substantially rebuilt on several occasions, notably in 1916 and in 1941.  After the end of the steamboat era on the Willamette, which solely tapered off to nothing in the 1940s or so, the main cargoes through the locks were log booms.  By the late '90s even this traffic had died away, and the locks were generally only in use during the summer months for pleasure vessels.  Some of the history can be seen here at willamettefalls.org

While I don't wish to be saccharine nostalgic about the days of the past, it seems that this is just a small part of the deindustrialization of America, as the locks were part of a larger and now-decaying riverine transport system.  A similar decay has happened to the inland canal networks of Europe.  The cargo they once carried now runs overland on railways and especially highways, even though the actual cost of water transport is much lower than overland.

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to Plan 9 from Oregon on Thu Dec 08, 2011 at 07:04 PM PST.

Also republished by History for Kossacks and Community Spotlight.

Poll

Should we spend any funds to restore the Willamette Locks?

27%98 votes
65%238 votes
6%25 votes

| 361 votes | Vote | Results

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