The Willamette Falls Legacy Project (WFLP) promotes four “key values.” The project’s consultants say that one value in particular, public access to the Willamette Falls, scores “off the charts” in popularity.

Small wonder, as there has never been true public access to the falls since our town’s founding. To understand why, consider a key component of John McLoughlin’s 1850 plat of Oregon City: the Mill Reserve.

McLoughlin demonstrated great civic vision in his plat, namely in setting aside several blocks as public parks. Those parks have become Carnegie Park, D.C. Latourette Park, Barclay Park, the municipal pool, and, fittingly, the lot upon which the McLoughlin House itself now stands. Most spectacularly, he reserved the McLoughlin Promenade as part of the plat.

For the falls, though, McLoughlin proceeded from another “key value,” economic development.

McLoughlin set aside a massive tract in the plat and designated it “Mill Reserve.” His handwritten notes on the plat specify that the tract “is reserved as private property.” By the time of the plat’s filing, several mills already occupied the Mill Reserve. Historian Jim Tompkins, in his fine book “Images of America: Oregon City,” writes: “When Dr. McLoughlin built his home in 1846, the view from his porch was of 40 structures. Toward the falls, he could see five mills — his lumber and flour mills and the three lumber and flour mills of the Methodist Oregon Milling Company.”

After McLoughlin’s death in 1857, the Oregon Legislature in 1862 resolved years of claim disputes between McLoughlin and the Methodists by restoring the Oregon City Claim to McLoughlin’s heirs, namely his daughter Eloisa and her husband Daniel Harvey — the latter also the executor of McLoughlin’s estate. They inherited title to the Mill Reserve.

The value of the Mill Reserve lay not only in land, but also in water power. The Harveys over the years began selling off parcels of the Mill Reserve — and, importantly the associated water rights — to individuals and companies that were creating, or would create, the early enterprises that shaped the Blue Heron Mill site.

For example, in 1863 and 1864 the Harveys granted deeds with water rights to George LaRocque, who became the proprietor of the Imperial Flouring Mills. (One historian actually lists Harvey himself as one of LaRocque’s original partners.) The Imperial Mills building, its warehouse, and its grain elevator were among the buildings purchased by Willard Hawley in 1908 for his paper company that grew and evolved into what is now Blue Heron. Also in 1864, the Harveys granted deeds with water rights to the Oregon City Woolen Manufacturing Company for what would become the Oregon City Woolen Mills.

So thoroughly was the Mill Reserve “privatized” that not even Main Street extended into it. In 1917 the Oregon Supreme Court decided the case Portland Railway, Light & Power Co. v. Oregon City. The company, the predecessor to the modern Portland General Electric Company (PGE), was leasing to Hawley a triangular piece of land within what would be the right-of-way of Main Street if it were to extend into the Mill Reserve to the Basin, constructed in 1865-66. Hawley was storing big piles of pulp on this parcel, located at the Basin wall.

Oregon City coveted this parcel, and claimed it was part of Main Street. Why? Water rights. By this era, it had constructed a water works plant on Main Street, just outside of the Mill Reserve. The attorney for Oregon City was blunt: “[W]hy should the city donate to the appellant corporation the portion of the only street in Oregon City that abuts the river where water rights might be available for municipal purposes and across which the flume for the city water works is now located?”

Oregon City argued the triangle was part of Main Street. Oregon City lost. The company was able to demonstrate its chain of title back to the original deed granted in 1865 from the Harveys to the People’s Transportation Company, the steamboat company that built the Basin.

In ironic contrast to this attempt to assert an extension of Main Street into the Mill Reserve, Oregon City over later years vacated streets as the paper mill grew outwards well beyond the Mill Reserve. The successive paper companies built structures on and over these former city streets. Now, if one stands on the McLoughlin Promenade looking down into the mill site, it is hard to see where 3rd and 4th Streets were located. In fact, on a tax map, most of the Blue Heron Mill property appears now as one big tax parcel.

A thin tax parcel that looks like a reverse check-mark juts into the mill property, along the west and north walls of the Basin. This is PGE’s tax parcel, which also extends out to the PGE Dam, the former site of Station A, the platform upon which the Powerhouse used to stand, and ultimately, the east side of the Falls themselves.

The WFLP consultants envision restoring public access by re-creating the Main Street grid with 3rd and 4th Streets. They also envision access to Willamette Falls along PGE’s property out to the Powerhouse platform. PGE appears to be on board, and in fact has produced an informative video on the history of the falls that has been shown at WFLP events. That is a good thing, because as far as the “key value” of public access, PGE’s role will be key.

Oregon City resident James Nicita is a former city commissioner

Contract Publishing

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