Blue Heron Beginnings: Commentary on the Willamette Falls Legacy Project -

As the momentum of the Willamette Falls Legacy Project builds with the announcement of the Planning Commission hearings on the framework master plan set to begin on Sept. 8, it seems appropriate to invoke some the excitement generated in an earlier era: the day the Woolen Mills opened.

Photo Credit: PHOTO COURTESY: OREGON HISTORICAL SOCIETY - Late 1864 or early 1865 photo of the new Oregon City Woolen Mills, and the Imperial Mills, just before construction of the steamboat basin. Planked water flume in foreground leads from Willamette Falls to Imperial Mills. Elevated ramp in rear of Imperial Mills leading down to Woolen Mills is likely the Canemah horse railroad. McLoughlin House is opposite Woolen Mills tower.In 1865, Oregon City did not have a newspaper. The Argus had departed for Salem in 1864, then closed. The Enterprise did not commence publishing until 1866. The Oregonian, however, printed the following fascinating account of the opening of the Woolen Mills on June 3, 1865.

Another cause for celebration: a spectacular photograph, which well complements the Oregonian’s story, has emerged from the files of the Oregon Historical Society. Perhaps the only one of its kind, it shows the Woolen Mills and the Imperial Mills, and the ground in front of the Imperial Mills before the People’s Transportation Company (P.T. Co.), in the latter half of 1865, constructed its steamboat basin right up to that flourmill’s front door. The picture likely dates from late 1864 or the first half of 1865.


On Wednesday evening we were among the number who embarked upon the P.T. Co.’s splendid steamer Senator for an excursion to Oregon City, and an attendance to the party, which was to inaugurate the opening of the new Woolen Factory building lately erected by our enterprising neighbors. The Mechanics’ Band were along, and enlivened the trip by some of their best music, which, with the good feeling of those on board, rendered it a very pleasant ride of two hours’ duration. A number were met at Oregon City from Salem, together with an outpouring of the youth and beauty of the former place, whose inhabitants are much given to mirth and joy, as was attested before the close of the evening. The ball was very likely the most magnificent festivity ever witnessed in their city, and we may well add that it has been seldom equaled in this country. The immense hall, constituting the second story of that superb building, decorated with flags, evergreens, etc., with a fine orchestra, was a suitable place for dancing and promenading, and was that night thrown open to furnish accommodations for an entertainment worthy of the occasion. Dancing commenced at 10 p.m. and after the first quadrille was entered upon with a worthy spirit, until dawn. Portland was well represented among the throng. The attendance was full, the ladies wearing their best dresses and sweetest smiles. The supper was well gotten up, and happiness prevailed while it was being served. After the festival hour had passed, in company with Mr. Pratt, who has been the chief mover in the erection of the structure, and the purchaser of its machinery in the East, we took a survey of the building from the base to its apex. The main plan is 100-by-50 feet in size, with a basement of 23 feet and two stories of 12 feet each, besides an attic of some 6 feet. The whole structure is of brick and stone, the wall having a base of 10 feet in diameter, tapering to 2 feet at the top, or lower range of the first story. In the basement two floors are provided, which makes the building nearly equivalent to four stories and an attic in height. The first floor of the basement will be used exclusively in washing goods and wool threshing. The second floor will be devoted to finishing... shearing, etc. The third floor, or first story proper, will be the weaving department, which has ample room for 80 looms... The fourth floor, or second story, has not an obstruction in the shape of a post or column, to interfere with operations, and the entire space of 190-by-50 feet, is calculated for the carding and spinning department. The attic, or fifth floor, will also be used for spinning and wool picking. A tower for the stairs... from which a hose attached to a force-pump below can be used to extinguish fire on any part of the works. The tower also furnishes an excellent view of the scenery up or down the river. The building, as it now stands, cost the company $32,000, an ornament to the city where it has been erected, and should be the pride of its projectors. The power will be furnished to the factory by a 5-foot waterwheel, issuing 460 inches of water under a head of 22 feet, which is calculated to give sufficient power for 12 sets of machinery. By the first day of August it is expected the factory will be in operation. The machinery partly arrived by the bark Almatla, and the remainder is upon the bark Sam Merritt, now on the way to this port from San Francisco. It was purchased under the supervision of Mr. Pratt, from manufactories in the East and is made from patterns of the most approved styles of Woolen Factory machines now in use. Provision has been made for the erection of a west wing, which will give nearly as much room as is afforded by the present building, and will make it the most complete establishment of the kind in any country. The Oregon City Woolen Manufacturing Company is composed of substantial energetic men, some of whom are practiced farmers, whose interests are identified with the interests and prosperity of the state, and it is confidently hoped that their success in this enterprise may be in accordance with their highest expectations. The good results likely to follow from their enterprise will shortly be manifest, and it may be an incentive to others to embark in the work of developing our own home industry. Oregon City has fine advantages for carrying on extensive works of this kind as can be found in the world, and they cannot very long remain unimproved. We visited various portions of the city while there, such as was possible during our short stay... About the only thing they are lacking in at present to render a stranger comfortable is that of hotels, but with such a hospitable people, one can generally find a home, upon making himself known, for a short visit among them. Several fine buildings, some of stone and brick, others of wood, are in course of construction.

A third cause for celebration is that the WFLP has designated the foundation of the Woolen Mills as one of the five “first-tier” historic structures, out of the approximately 55 buildings on the Blue Heron site, targeted for preservation and adaptive reuse as part of the framework master plan.

It would be an even greater cause for celebration if the master plan were to specifically call out all of the 15 buildings and sites determined by the State Historic Preservation Officer to be eligible for listing the National Register of Historic Places (with the possible exception of the water filtration plant, the inclusion of which seems a bit of a stretch) as worthy of preservation and adaptive reuse. Given the magnificent history and culture, of the Blue Heron site, the prospect of such an expansion of the legacy may well be worth an evening engaging in public comment during the upcoming hearings.

However you feel, make your voice heard!

Oregon City resident James Nicita is a

former city commissioner

Contract Publishing

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