Leaders are betting $100,000 that Congress will approve a Willamette Falls National Heritage Area
by: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN Willamette Falls, seen here from the Tumwater Room at the Clackamas County Historical Society in Oregon City, is the centerpiece for the proposed Willamette Falls National Heritage Area.

Where the public sees a closed navigation canal and locks next to a shuttered paper mill, local officials see a chance to leverage an investment toward persuading Congress to designate a Willamette Falls National Heritage Area.

The exact dimensions of the area are still being hashed out, but it would encompass an approximately three-mile stretch on both the Oregon City and West Linn sides of the Willamette River between the mouths of its Clackamas and Tualatin tributaries. The approximately 50 current national heritage areas receive funding and staff time from the National Park Service.

In 2009, Congressman Kurt Schrader (D-Oregon City) introduced HR 4081 for a feasibility study on establishing the Willamette Falls National Heritage Area. Before a region can be designated a national heritage area, such a study must be completed to determine if a project would preserve the designated area's history, stimulate its economy and conserve its natural and historic features.

'Establishing a national heritage area would not only preserve the unique history of the West Linn/Oregon City community but also promote tourism that will bring much-needed jobs to our region,' Schrader said.

The locks are a rare example of early bypass canal construction, which engineered a route around the quarter-mile-wide, 42-foot drop of Willamette Falls that has remained unchanged since the West's first city opened the locks in the 1870s. The Blue Heron mill site also houses several buildings from the latter part of the 19th century whose fate will be determined after bankruptcy proceedings this summer.

Although Schrader's bill to secure national protections stalled in the Congressional Committee on Natural Resources, that fact isn't slowing down local jurisdictions and companies that have pooled more than $100,000 toward the feasibility study.

On top of funds from both cities and Clackamas County, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde has contributed $10,000 toward protecting the area where the 27 tribes had converged for trade, political summits and salmon fishing for a thousand years.

'Anytime you talk about family history it's an emotional subject, but this is an opportunity for the tribes to help guide the discussion on enhancing our natural resources,' said David Lewis, cultural resources manager for the tribes. Portland General Electric chipped in another $2,500.

The company now known as PGE formed in 1888 to build the first hydroelectric generation facility at the falls, and its second-generation station, the 1895 T.W. Sullivan Powerhouse, remains in operation today. The 122 million kilowatt-hours that the state's oldest dam produces powers 11,000 homes.

Several nonprofit organizations such Main Street Oregon City and other private-sector companies have been collaborating over the past five years to advocate for the historic designation. The complete list is available at

Lisa Christopher, executive director of the Clackamas County Historical Society, was impressed with the turnout to last week's meetings of the Willamette Falls Heritage Coalition at the Museum of the Oregon Trail building overlooking the falls. She said she anticipated more attention for the museum, which is open more and more frequently now after temporarily closing because of lack of funds in 2009.

'We look forward to now - and in the future - that there will be many opportunities for us to move forward with the incredible amount of cohesiveness that has been created throughout the community behind this historic project,' Christopher said.

Brian Scott, the group's paid consultant, said he expects more workshops through the fall before the feasibility study is completed. The Heritage Coalition is planning to organize various activities for the First City Celebration, set for Saturday, July 30 in downtown Oregon City.

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