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What gems lurk beneath the Blue Heron site?

The Willamette Falls Legacy Project (WFLP) will host a visit by University of Minnesota architecture professor Tom Meyer Nov. 4 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the Oregon City Commission Chambers, 625 Center St. For his talk on Nov. 5 in Portland, visit rediscoverthefalls.com to sign up.

by: STEREOGRAPH BY CARLETON WATKINS - Oregon City just below the falls, showing flour mills and a sternwheel steamboat on the lower river in 1867 during the time of the Pioneer Paper Company. The Oregon City Flour Mill building is the one towards the left, four stories with the pitched roof, right above the boat moored along shore.Meyer designed Mill Ruins Park in Minneapolis, seen by the WLFP as a model for the Blue Heron redevelopment. If the foundation of the old Oregon City Woolen Mills, with its sizable cut basalt stones, can be converted into anything like Mill Ruins Park, it will be thrilling.

I hope the WLFP will consider another, still hidden, archaeological gem for such treatment as well. Right around the corner from the Woolen Mills, and lurking under the Blue Heron site’s concrete platform, lies the foundation of the Oregon City Flour Mill. What’s more, the course of the millrace (now dry) that turned this mill’s wheel runs beneath the platform too.

Flour milling defined Oregon’s City’s early history. John McLoughlin set up a gristmill, and then a flourmill. The renowned Imperial Mills were located at the foot of Main Street from just after the Civil War until Willard P. Hawley bought the building in 1908 for his paper machines. William Singer in the 1890s had a flourmill at the top of Singer Creek Falls.

On the river side of Main Street, on the north side of 3rd Street, stood the Oregon City Flour Mill. Nineteenth-century newspaper articles write glowingly of this enterprise.

A Portland newspaper, The West Slope, said in 1876, “Lying on the bank of the river...is the splendid Flouring Mill of Miller, Marshall & Co., a beautiful brick structure with stone foundation, built on the bedrock, and perhaps the finest and largest flour mill on the coast.”

Indeed, in photos taken from West Linn of Oregon City in both 1867 and 1892 (in the newly re-issued “Old Oregon City” published by the Clackamas County Historical Society) clearly show the four-story mill building with its foundation descending over bedrock down to the millrace which empties into the Willamette River.

Also in 1876, The Oregon City Enterprise ran an article extensively describing the inner workings of this mill, including it’s advanced fire-suppression system: “The arrangement against fire is perfect. Leading to the top of the building is a three feet diameter iron pipe which at the lower end is attached to the pipes of the water works. By means of a wire which when pulled floods the entire building with water. So simple and perfect is it that no fire can get under way.”

Both the Imperial Mills and the Oregon City Flour Mill became part of the Portland Flouring Mills Co. owned by D.W. Burnside (of Portland bridge and street fame). When Hawley bought them in 1908, the Oregon City Flour Mill became Mill D, underwent a substantial conversion, and housed Paper Machine #2 for most of the 20th century. That evolution can be seen on a succession of old Sanborn maps. The building is now a roofless ruin.

And, there is yet one more item of significance. The Oregon City Flour Mill very likely had as its origins the first paper mill in the Pacific Northwest: the Pioneer Paper Company of W.W. Buck, founded in 1866. In his 1951 article, “History of Papermaking in The Pacific Northwest,” W. Claude Adams describes the inauspicious beginning of this enterprise:

“A story is told of the grand opening of the mill. The gala occasion was celebrated by a banquet and dance in the mill, with a brass band and all the flourishes. The purpose was to get the people there and to sell stock; a demonstration of the paper machine was to follow. The dance lasted all night, and by morning the machine mechanism began to falter and at last stopped entirely. The promoters offered $2,500 to anyone who could make the machine run, but no one volunteered, so the whole event proved a fiasco.”

Pioneer Paper lasted only about two years. Adams describes further how the successor firm to Hawley, Publisher’s Paper, placed a bronze plaque in 1951 marking the site of Pioneer Paper, similar in fashion to Hawley’s placing a plaque in 1919 in front of his company’s headquarters, almost right next door, at the northwest corner of 3rd and Main, to mark the location of the Oregon Spectator, the first newspaper west of the Rocky Mountains.

Discussions within the WLFP includes ideas such as “peeling back” the concrete platform from the riverside to expose the bedrock floodplain below. This could bring the Oregon City Flour Mill foundation back to the light of day. Perhaps too the millrace. What an opportunity.

And just where did the millrace flow come from? From the basalt cliff hydrology? From flumes leading out along and under Main Street from the basin? From the north end of the Woolen Mill? This network of water flows certainly counts as yet another gem lurking underneath the Blue Heron platform. If it can be restored — imagine a day-lighted channel meandering from the basin through the Woolen Mill and Flour Mill foundations, into the millrace, and back into the Willamette River — it would be spectacular.

Oregon City resident James Nicita is a former city commissioner.




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