Historic locks close 2006 season on an up note


This article is part of a continuing series on the history of West Linn and it is written by Sandy Carter, a Bolton freelance writer and editor who has lived in West Linn since Dec. 31, 1992.

A small notice appeared in last week's paper, titled 'Willamette Falls Locks closes for the season,' and I decided to squeeze in one last visit to our 133-year-old transportation landmark on Saturday, its last open day.

Lock operators were giving a jetboat full of early-autumn pleasure-seekers a wet thrill -overflowing the towering wood gates that guard Chamber two while the jetboat pilot snuggled his vessel close to the ensuing 20-foot cascade.

Families squealed and clapped as the Willamette River found its way over and around the ends of the gates and gave watchers a severe misting.

While the craft backed out and headed up towards the falls I thought about how much things have changed, and how amazingly under-appreciated the locks are in our auto-oriented 21st Century.

According to a now quaint 1964 Army Corps of Engineers Willamette Locks brochure, the average annual number of lockages then was 8,100 and the average annual tonnage locked around the falls was 1,100,000 tons. Whew. A low priority, recreational and passenger-carrying boats locked last.

(That tonnage, incidentally, was primarily gravel barges and log rafts making their way to lumber mills downstream and Western Transportation barges loaded with the powdered clay, sulfur, chlorine, lime rock, and the other essential raw materials of pulp and papermaking in West Linn during Crown Zellerbach's 58-year reign at the West Linn mill. CZ dominated the West Coast paper markets, growing its own trees and manufacturing its own pulp, which created the evil mill smells that most of us remember from our childhood if we grew up anywhere in the Willamette Valley.

In those days, we groaned about Camas when the wind was wrong in northeast Portland, and everyone held their breath on Interstate 5 when passing Albany's massive stacks. Today the West Linn mill's pulp comes in on trucks, costing hundreds of jobs but saving the river, the air and our olfactories.)

But I digress.

Last year, according to Corps usage stats, Willamette Falls Locks ushered 348 vessels around the falls in 73 up-bound and 78 down-bound lockages, including 11 'commercial, non-cargo (passenger)' boats. As of 9/16/2006, 470 vessels had locked through, in 116 up-bound and 112 down-bound lockages, including 31 commercial, passenger-carrying boats. And this reversal of the locks' steep decline in use is very good news.

Perhaps it just marks the beginning of a new awareness of our wonderful old locks' potential as a visitor magnet. Or maybe it marks the start of an upsurge in river-based and heritage tourism that can gently exploit and explore the many thrills and unique perspectives up and downstream that are unavailable except from the bow or stern of a boat.

Both prospects make me happy.

Carter may be reached with comments and ideas for future articles by sending e-mail to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..