Oregon City and West Linn celebrated greater Portland's most unacknowledged landmark on Saturday, September 14th at Lock Fest, an annual event to raise awareness of the ailing Willamette Falls Locks, which have shuttled boats up and down the falls' 42-foot drop since 1893.
Those new to Portland may be unaware of the incredibly dramatic waterfall frothing up the Willamette river just twenty minutes South of the metro area; lifelong residents seem to dismiss Oregon City as a blue collar paper mill town. Indeed, it has been and sort of still is. But Lock Fest is a good reason to think of the site as something worth visiting and contemplating.
The falls cover a 1500-foot horseshoe across a particularly wide section of the river, and the view from the scenic pull-off on highway 99E offers a huge view of sky that is hard to find in a region dominated by trees. One can look far up the river and across the turbulent falls, but the downriver view is blocked by the overwhelming industrial complexity of the Blue Heron Paper Mill. The far West Linn bank is a comparably confusing series of aging structures which include power generators, fish ladders, and five chambers of locks, all in various stages of disrepair and apparent abandonment. A glimpse of the beautiful crumbling Oregon City Bridge makes up the single visible architectural element. Occasionally, the roar of the river is matched by the rumble of a passing freight train.
It is the most powerfully balanced view of nature, industry, history, and art this writer is aware of.
Which is what I hoped to finally get access to at Lock Fest. The event, put on by the Willamette Falls Heritage Foundation, was under-promoted but well organized. A legion of volunteers made sure parking was easy, shuttles were available to those not interested in descending eighty stairs, and admission was free. In a small green patch directly adjacent to the lock chambers, vendors sold raffle tickets, snacks, books, tee shirts, and local art.
But after a short walk down the length of the locks, a security guard informed my wife and me that we could go no further. "Forklifts come through here," he warned. And since my 14-month-old daughter was accompanying me, strapped to my back, I was not permitted to partake in the "Paper and Power" tour of the West Linn Paper Company and PGE power plant. Furthermore, no boat rides through the locks could be offered this year, since the facilities are pending safety inspection by the Army Corps of Engineers. Heat from the late day sun was sweltering, and with no cash on hand for a cold beverage, we had to call it a day prematurely.
Next year, we will register in advance and make arrangements for a babysitter.
This is the fifth year of the festival, and perhaps with time and funding it will grow from a "Save the Locks" event into a broader "Celebration of the Locks and Falls," with boat rides through the locks and venues on both sides of the river.