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Preserving a National Treasure

Willamette Falls Locks and Canal get big backers with National Trust and preservation league
by: Vern Uyetake, The annual Locks Fest was canceled when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers indefinitely shut down the locks at Willamette Falls.

A group of history lovers is one step closer to preserving the Willamette Falls Locks and Canal.

The One Willamette River Coalition, whose members have been working for six years to keep the 1873 Willamette Falls Navigation Canal and Locks operating, picked up some powerful new friends May 22 with a joint public announcement by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Historic Preservation League of Oregon (HPLO).

The West Linn locks were recently listed as one of nine on the Historic Preservation League of Oregon's 2012 list of the state's most endangered places. Each year the preservation league publishes a list of historic buildings, sites, districts, structures and landscapes that are at risk of losing their significance and integrity.

According to HPLO, the Willamette Falls locks were the first significant navigational improvement on the Willamette River and in the greater Columbia River drainage basin. Today the locks are unique in Oregon and a rare example of an intact piece of America's canal building era.

The other endangered locations named this year are the Jantzen Beach Carousel in Portland, the Ice House in Eagle Point, the Uppertown Net Loft in Astoria, the Skidmore/Old Town Historic District in Portland, the Rivoli Theater in Pendleton, the Rosemont Farm Smokehouse in Yamhill, the St. Francis Hotel in Albany and the View Point Inn in Corbett.

After Peggy Moretti, HPLO director, unveiled the locks' listing May 22, Barbara Sidway, Oregon member of the National Trust's board of directors, broke the news that the canal and locks has also been named one of the National Trust's new 'National Treasures.'

'We have long known the critical role that Willamette Falls at the end of the Oregon Trail have played in shaping our country's character as the nexus for western migration,' Moretti said. 'The deterioration and recent closure of the historically-intact 1873 canal and locks signals a huge loss to water navigation on the Willamette River and to preserving this significant National Register site.'

As a National Treasure, the Willamette Falls Locks will be among other irreplaceable, critically threatened places across the country that the National Trust will take direct action to protect.

For West Linn, that is great news. Last November, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decommissioned the locks indefinitely with a non-operational status because of the risk of 'catastrophic failure.' Prior to that, the locks were opened occasionally and were being maintained.

For One Willamette River Coalition facilitator and West Linn resident Sandy Carter, the partnership with National Trust for Historic Preservation means the group now has a powerful ally.

'We're thrilled with these new partnerships,' Carter said. 'With the strong support of the National Trust and HPLO, we hope to ensure that the locks are repaired, restored and operational for years to come.'

Carter has been involved with the West Linn-based coalition from the get go.

'Once you've been around them, you can't help but grow fond of them,' Carter said of the locks.

When she was learning about the locks Carter discovered her grandfather was high ranking in the Army Corps of Engineers, working in the same district and near the locks. She said that, when she was young, her family would take trips down to the locks to see how high the water was.

Back in the 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers wanted to replace and upgrade the locks, however, plans were scrapped when World War II started. Carter said her father helped save the locks nearly a hundred years ago.

'I'm here to save them for another 100 years,' Carter said.

Carter said having the National Trust name the locks as a National Treasure will go a long way in the fight to preserve and hopefully reopen the locks in the near future.

'This is not just one small step; this is a step of many magnitudes,' she said.

Over the last six years, West Linn coalition has worked continuously to save the locks without much success. Now, the coalition sees some opportunity.

'It's been difficult to sustain optimism over many years,' Carter said. 'I think this will get people fired up again.'

'We look forward to working in close collaboration with the Historic Preservation League of Oregon, the One Willamette River Coalition and a growing cadre of stakeholders, preservations and enthused partners, to save the Willamette Falls Canal and Locks,' Moretti said.

In the coming weeks, HPLO will be meeting with owners and stakeholders from each of the nine endangered places to assess needs and begin charting a preservation plan for each property.

Planning has begun for a large, jointly sponsored public meeting to launch the new partnerships that will be held June 20 from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. at the Ainsworth House in Oregon City. The agenda will include status updates on the West Linn Locks and Army Corps of Engineers funding, a look at new partner resources that will be available for the effort and a roundtable discussion to settle on strategies that could ensure the repair and reopening of the canal.

'If you care about the locks because of their historic value, or if you canoe or kayak and want to use them, or if you've got a marine-based business that needs them to serve your customers or if you'd like to someday be able to do a dinner cruise or tourist barge to the beautiful upper river reach, please come and lend your ideas to the conversation,' Carter said.

For more information about the locks, visit willamettefalls.org.