Blue Heron beginnings: Commentary on the Willamette Falls Legacy Project

When John McLoughlin first had a millrace blasted from the rocks at Willamette Falls in 1832, he launched Oregon City on its defining quest: to harness the falls’ immense power for industry.

by: CITY OF OREGON CITY - A thick black line on a portion of this 1892 Sanborn map to show the route of the underground box flume running along Main and 3rd streets.McLoughlin himself devised a waterpower system for the flourmill he later built in 1844. At the top of a steep channel, a small basin with a breakwater and a headgate controlled the flow down to the mill’s waterwheel, which Canemah steamboat captain J.T. Apperson recalled as “a breast-wheel...rather than an overshot.”

As early as 1846, the Spectator foresaw, “The falls of the Willamette affords ample power privileges for the erection of machinery of every description, to any extent desired; and we believe that, in a few years, there will be constructed a canal on each side of the river, commencing at the head of the falls and locked down for a distance of one mile, which improvement would afford power for the manufacture of every thing necessary for internal purposes, as well as transportation.”

Not until 1873 did the Willamette Locks fulfill that prophecy of an actual canal, on the west side of Willamette Falls. On the Oregon City side, in 1865 the People’s Transportation Co. excavated the steamboat basin that channeled water not into a canal, but into flumes.

Flumes sprang out of the basin like arteries out of a heart, the rush of their waters pumping life into early Oregon City industry. “Horsepower” measured the might and energy Willamette Falls generated; “head” measured the fall of water. A deed from the 1880s, for example, conveyed “the perpetual right to take from any of the ‘Basin’...sufficient water to be conveyed from said Basin to said premises in a race or flume to create at all times 50 horsepower with a 12-foot head...”

The early flumes extended in progressive length from their respective headgates at the basin’s breakwater to each of the era’s three major mills. One flume stubbed out from the basin to the Imperial Mills, whose waterwheel drove the shafts and gears that turned its six mill stones — known as “burrs” or “buhrs.” Water from a mid-length flume to the Oregon City Woolen Mills spun a large five-foot-diameter waterwheel. Shortly after its 1865 opening, Woolen Mills machinery included nine carding machines, four spinning jacks with 960 spindles and 19 double-width looms with finishing machines to match. The third early flume stretched north from the basin all way up Main Street to 3rd Street, where it took a sharp 90-degree left turn, and powered up the Brick Mill. According to an 1879 Willamette Farmer story:

“The old flume from the basin to the brick mill that is now being replaced by a new one is a worthy study for anyone interested in the durability of the timber of Oregon. This flume is round and banded together with large iron hoops; It was built in 1864 of fir lumber, principally of yellow species, and buried several feet below the surface. Most of the lumber is in nearly as good a state of preservation as it was the day it was put in... ”

by: CLACKAMAS COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY - In this 1892 photograph, a waterwheel housing can be seen jutting into 3rd Street (center) and the water discharge from the Brick Mill flume (left) can be seen cascading down the tailrace into the Willamette River.The same year, The West Shore described the Brick Mill’s flour milling “motive power” as “a 40-inch waterwheel, and so perfect is the machinery that a child can instantly start or stop it at will.” Its machinery included “four six-foot buhrs, two three-foot buhrs, and one two-foot buhr, giving it a capacity of 300 barrels in every 24 hours. One of the most ingenious arrangements in the mill is an elevator for bringing sacks from the wharf to the upper story. It is made on the endless chain system, and is the only elevator of its kind we have ever seen. The mere pressure of a finger starts it going, and at a recent timing it elevated 1,360 sacks of wheat in two hours and 25 minutes.”

Oregon City’s mechanical waterpower era crested in the years 1888 to 1895, when it began to yield to hydroelectric power, a trend highlighted by Edward L. Eastham’s historic first-in-the-nation long-distance transmission of electric power from Station A at Willamette Falls to Portland, and peaking with the completion of Station B, today’s T.W. Sullivan plant.

Aspects of Eastham’s pre-Station A history appear in a full-page, seven-column-wide Oregonian spread in the Willamette Valley edition of Nov. 17, 1888. The paper promoted Oregon City and the falls with a cascade of headlines: “OREGON CITY/The City at the Beautiful Falls of the Willamette/AN UNEXCELLED WATER POWER/The Largest and Most Available Supply of Water on the Coast — The Coming Manufacturing Center of the Northwest.” The examination opened with ringing rhetoric on the advantages of waterpower over coal-fired steam power:

“A manufacturing center whose power for running its factories is obtained from a waterfall has every advantage over a rival place whose factories are compelled to resort to the use of steam as a propelling power. Water sends no dark clouds of smoke heavenward to becloud the sky and cover the face of the sun; water does not impart to the buildings adjacent to the factories where it is used, the begrimed appearance always noted where coal is burned in any considerable quantities. Waterpower makes a clean city: waterpower makes a healthy city...”

The article referred to Eastham as “the moving spirit” of Oregon City. Born in Oregon City in 1848 and raised on a farm, he attended Willamette University, then studied law while a schoolteacher. He began his law practice in 1876, and in 1881 organized the Bank of Oregon City. In 1883, he conceived a plan to buy the Willamette Transportation and Locks Co. (WTLC), which in this era owned both the steamboat basin and the locks, ample land primed for factory development, and most if not all of the remaining available Willamette Falls water rights. In 1888, he left the practice of law to pursue full time his vision of the industrial development of the falls. The article trumpeted an offer being made at the time by WTLC “to any builder of any sort of mill or factory, land suitable for the purpose of manufacturing free of charge perpetually, and waterpower on a 30 years’ lease for a reasonable rental, to be fixed by impartial arbitration, the first 10 years’ rent free.”

The article described some of the industries making use of that falls’ waterpower. Of the flourmills: “There will never a scarcity of wheat for all manufacturing purposes in Oregon City. Besides the 250,000 tons annual yield of the Willamette Valley, there is the 500,000 tons yearly raised east of the mountains that will more than supply all the demands of the millers at the falls.” The Woolen Mills’ 250 employees processed a million pounds of wool annually into “cashmeres, blankets, flannels, shawls, robes and all grades of woolen cloth, including fine and coarse clothing for men’s wear.” Near the Woolen Mills, a small factory turned out 1,000 pounds per day of shoddy, a low-grade wool byproduct used for, among other things, stuffing upholstered furniture. The new (but ultimately short-lived) Portland Cement Co. works produced 100 barrels of cement per day from a “natural Portland cement rock” quarried near the town of Oakland in Douglas County. The Oregon City Excelsior Works shipped 1,000 bales per month of excelsior, wood shreds used in packaging and manufactured from cottonwood trees lining the Willamette River up through the valley. There were, in addition, “a furniture factory, a sawmill, a sash, door and blind factory, and one box factory.”

Finally, the article pictured Eastham on the brink of his historic achievement with Station A. Sometimes overlooked in that achievement: before his Willamette Falls Electric Co. lit up Portland in 1889, in 1888 his Oregon City Electric Co. was lighting up Edison incandescents in Oregon City. About two weeks before the article appeared, on about Nov. 1, 1888, Oregon City Electric Co. began to provide stores, residences and streets with light from a water-driven Edison dynamo with “capacity for 450 16-candle power lights.” The dynamo was belted to the waterwheel that serviced both the Oregon City Shoddy Mill and the Oregon City Excelsior Works. The 1888 Sanborn map shows this complex, just off the northwest corner of the steamboat basin. Click to download the entire map.

Perhaps none of these lights thereafter shone as brightly as did Eastham himself. His successful demonstration in Oregon City impressed the Portland inventor and electricity promoter Parker F. Morey. Within a week, on Nov. 8, 1888, they incorporated Willamette Falls Electric Co. — Eastham as president and Morey as vice president and superintendent — with the specific objective of transmitting electric power generated at Willamette Falls from Oregon City to Portland. The firm drew huge capital investment of $1 million. As stated by Craig Wollner in his book, “Electrifying Eden: Portland General Electric, 1889-1965,” “It was also about to make history.”

Though perhaps not a conscious decision, Eastham, as part of his broader realization of McLoughlin’s original vision of taking full advantage of the waterpower of the falls, located Station A, according to J.T. Apperson’s later account, approximately at the location of McLoughlin’s own headgate. Rock-filled wooden bulkheads supported the “dynamo house,” in which Eastham and Morey installed four Brush arc-light dynamos manufactured by the California Electric Light Co. In March of 1889, construction began on the power line from Oregon City to Portland. Then, on June 3, 1889, Willamette Falls Electric Co. succeeded in the nation’s first long-distance transmission of electric power. The next day, the Oregonian, in a story entitled, “Works Like a Charm,” heralded the achievement: “It worked magnificently and conclusively demonstrated that our city can be lighted successfully from the falls.”

Station A appears in an inset on the 1892 Oregon City Sanborn map which, when observed together with a 1892 photograph of Oregon City’s mills from West Linn, provides a fascinating snapshot in time of the era’s waterpower, its network of flumes and waterwheels, and the tailraces into which water flowed after spinning the turbines. As they are known today, “Tailrace H” led to the river from the Imperial Mills; “Tailrace #1” from the Woolen Mills; and “Tailrace #2” from the Brick Mill, labeled “Oregon City Mills” on the Sanborn map.

Two flumes stand out in particular on the Sanborn map. The map shows the Brick Mill flume as an “underground box flume.” At the basin wall its water turned a first water turbine, then it extended up Main to 3rd street, where its water spun the Brick Mill’s turbine before discharging into the tailrace that emptied, near a small shed, into the Willamette River. In the photograph, the Brick Mill stands to the left and across the street from the Woolen Mills, and its waterwheel housing juts out into the right of way of 3rd St. The water discharge from the Brick Mill flume cascades down the tailrace and empties, next to the small shed, into the Willamette River. The second flume depicted crisscrossed the Brick Mill flume and reached a turbine housing on the north riverside of Main Street.

After Eastham’s untimely death in 1891, Morey reorganized Willamette Falls Electric Co. into Portland General Electric Co. (PGE) and constructed the mammoth Station B facility on the west side of the river to augment, and ultimately replace, Station A. Completed in 1895, today Station B, now known as the T.W. Sullivan plant, alone harnesses the water power of Willamette Falls.

At the Blue Heron site, the flows have stilled, the flumes are gone and the tailraces have been filled in. Corroding turbine housings projecting from a dam are all that remain at the site of Station A and the later Hawley powerhouse. But the historical imprint of Station A and Oregon City’s flumes and waterwheels inspires the imagination with possibilities for the Blue Heron site’s redevelopment.

A wavy blue line of paint or inlaid tile on the street or sidewalk could trace the historical route of the Brick Mill flume. Historic flume routes could serve as the basis for urban waterscapes such as those created by artists like Herbert Dreiseitl (, who led the design of Tanner Springs Park in Portland. A new flume might be designed specifically for salmon passage, and allow people to look down at the passing salmon through clear plates in the sidewalk.

In 2009, Tim Bailey and Robert Bass from the Oregon Institute of Technology, in a study funded by PGE and the Clackamas County Soil and Water Conservation District, published “An Assessment of the Feasibility of Generating Electric Power Using Urban Stormwater in Oregon City.” They surveyed the state of modern micro-hydroelectric generators, and analyzed two sites, including Singer Hill Falls, to determine whether these systems could feasibly be installed within Oregon City’s existing stormwater system to create a new source of power for the electric grid. They concluded that because stormwater is intermittent, such a system at the present time could not generate enough power to recover the costs to produce it. They did, however, suggest that setting up a demonstration project might be worthwhile:

“When people see micro-hydro plants in operation, producing clean, renewable energy, they become more likely to invest in similar technologies for themselves. Such awareness is necessary if our society is going to end its dependence on fossil fuels and create a brighter, more sustainable future.”

Perhaps micro-hydro placed within restored tailraces or newly constructed flumes could power up parts of the Blue Heron site. The water flow would not be intermittent, and the tourist flow would guarantee exposure for any demonstration project.

Through his vision Edward Eastham put his stamp on his era of Oregon City’s history. Blue Heron challenges us to do the same.

Oregon City resident James Nicita is a former city commissioner.

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