Willamette Falls Riverwalk Project (Will It Happen?)

Willamette Falls Riverwalk Project

Willamette Falls Riverwalk Project (What’s Happening?)


Hi and welcome to another episode of Around The Neighborhood with me, Scott McMahon.  This is the show about the quest for fun, history, and mystery in our backyard.


Today, we’re in Oregon City and what a better place to explore some history and fun, then the first incorporated city west of the Rocky Mountains way back in 1842.  I love popping over to Oregon City to stop by the End of the Oregon Trail Museum, The McLoughlin House, The Highland Stillhouse, and of course the Willamette Falls.


You can get a great view of the falls from this viewpoint across from the Highland Stillhouse, but for most of the public we can’t get up close to the falls.  That’s because since 1829 the Willamette Falls has been occupied by some form of industry or another. The father of Oregon, John McLoughlin, who set up a fur trading business for the Hudson Bay Company, originally built a sawmill at the falls.


But for generations before 1829, Native American tribes from all over the area came here to fish for salmon and lamprey eels.  They used a technique called dip netting. The Native Americans would stand out on a platform and literally dip their nets into the base of the falls to collect the fish.  In fact, just recently access was granted to the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde to construct a platform to continue the tradition of dip netting.


You have to imagine that for thousands of years Native American tribes were essentially hunter and gatherers, and then one day they come across the falls.  A place where they can more easily collect fish. And not to mention how gorgeous and magnificent it must have been to arrive at the falls. It’s no wonder that this place still has spiritual meaning to the indigenious people.


The name Willamette originates from the Native word “WALL AMPT”, it’s unclear what it meant, but some scholars say that the French fur traders mispronounced the tribal word, MAT for MET.  And actually, Willamette University, was originally spelled and pronounced WALLA-MAT”. Eventually it became Willamette with an “I” and for many people coming to this area, we help them out by saying it’s Willamette Dammit.  Haha.


So for thousands of years and generations of different tribes that came here for their annual spiritual retreat and fishing, the European fur traders showed up and set up shop.


On this side we had Oregon City established in 1842 and then across the river, Linn City was established in 1843.  Now, let me tell you, competition was fierce between the two cities. Imagine when steamboats came down the river and needed to dock someplace to trade goods.  Which side do they go on? Oregon City or Linn City? This competition ran strong until the great flood in 1862 which pretty much wiped out both cities. Speaking of floods, the two recent ones were in 1964 and 1996.  I bet there are some viewers who can share some stories of when those floods came through town.


Anyway, after the flood in 1862, it took almost a decade for a lock system to be constructed on the West Linn side.  This allowed boats to bypass the falls. It was in operation all the way up to 2011 before it closed. And speaking of 2011, that’s when the Blue Heron Paper Company closed shop.  There have been other paper mill companies in business along the falls, but from what I understand, the Blue Heron was the last one of the last ones to close. The West Linn Paper Company across the way closed in 2017, but reopened and changed its name to the Willamette Falls Paper Company in 2019.


But back to the Blue Heron.  So this massive structure and some counterparts across the river have been closed and abandoned for several years.  There have been tours of the abandoned mill, and it’s been used as a set piece for TV shows like GRIMM when it was shot here.  And speaking of GRIMM, you can check out the episode that I was on way back when in Season 03.


Anyway, let’s take a look at what happened after the Blue Heron Paper Company closes in 2011.  The land and assets were auctioned off for development and it wasn’t until 2013 before a Canadian company bought the property.  But that deal fell through in 2014 and another buyer stepped up, George Hide-Ger-Kin, who paid $2.2 Million in bankruptcy court. $2.2 Million!  For this prime real estate. Crazy.


A group of public partners organized in the form of the Willamette Falls Legacy Project to propose an easement to create a public space to gain access to the falls.  $5 Million was offered to Hide-Ger-Kin to build a walking path to the falls. He said no. But, just recently a new owner has come into the picture. The Confederate Tribes of the Grand Ronde bought the property for about $15 million.  So, Hide-Ger-Kin pays $2.2 Million and does nothing to the property for 5 years and then sells it for $15 million. Now there’s more to the story here, as things have not all been a healthy productive relationship, so now that the Confederate Tribes of the Grand Ronde are involved there is hope for progress.


Imagine if Main Street was extended and there were new shops, restaurants, museums, hotels, apartments, etc. that spanned this area?  And imagine if there was a public walkway that brought us even closer to the falls to experience all its magnificence?


Now, what makes this so interesting is that back in 1855, the native people of this area were relocated to a reservation out towards the coast.  Basically, U.S. industry took over and the government just moved the natives to get out of the way. But now after all these years, the tribes have regained ownership of the land and are in works of constructing a walkway along the river, as opposed to running it through main street to create public access to the falls.


As you can see, there is no construction yet, and we can only imagine what this place will eventually look like.  Will they do a complete tear down? How much will they keep the historic buildings in tact? It would be cool to see updated buildings that looked retro, like the baseball parks in Baltimore, San Francisco, and San Diego.


There are a lot of groups invested into this project, not only the Tribes of the Grand Ronde and the Willamette Falls Legacy Project, but also the Willamette Falls Trust.  All of the links to these groups are in the description.


It’s exciting to know that one day something will happen here.  On the flip side, it’ll be interesting to see what the city plans to do about traffic flow?  Or no flow. Haha.


Anyway, if you want to keep up to date on the development of things, again I’ll leave links in the description.


In the meantime, let’s just take a fly over the falls to imagine what it will look like in the near future.


Well, I hope you liked this episode, and since the show is sponsored by my real estate services, all my contact information is listed below in case you needed to buy or sell a home, especially in this area.  Thanks for watching, and I’ll see you around the neighborhood.