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Willamette Falls Locks “National Treasure”

May 30, 2013

Editor’s Note — To celebrate National Historic Preservation Month we’ve asked several individuals and organizations from around the state to tell us what preservation means to their community. We hope you find inspiration for your next preservation project from these stories.

By Peggy Sigler

Thanks to generous local preservationists, Oregon has the privilege of having its own Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, now in its third year. As Oregon Field Officer, I’ve been focused on our local National Treasure project, the 1873 Willamette Falls Navigation Canal and Locks in West Linn.

The newly opened Willamette Falls Locks in 1894. (Photo credit: Willamette Falls Heritage Foundation's George Matile Collection)

The newly opened Willamette Falls Locks in 1894. (Photo credit: Willamette Falls Heritage Foundation’s George Matile Collection)

National Treasures” are endangered, irreplaceable historic places. In coordinated campaigns with local preservation partners to save treasures across the nation, we are taking direct action that brings the Trust’s preservation, advocacy, legal, marketing, and fundraising expertise.

The Willamette Falls Canal and Locks, opened in 1873 to connect the upper and lower Willamette River, retain high integrity through original routing, design, and materials. The oldest, continuously-operating, multiple-lift by-pass canal and locks in the nation skirt the 42-foot cascade of Willamette Falls, the largest falls by volume in the United States. This rare example of a bypass canal was a workhorse for 120 years on the early highway that was the Willamette River. Located at the end of the historic Oregon Trail, this National Treasure is an important commercial water navigation link for the region, part of a popular recreation corridor, and an integral piece of the pioneering history of the Northwest.

The Locks in c.1955. (Photo credit: US Army Corps of Engineers, Portland District, historic photo collection)

The Locks in c.1955. (Photo credit: US Army Corps of Engineers, Portland District, historic photo collection)

The Locks were entered in the National Trust's "This Place Matters" challenge in 2011. (Photo credit: Sandy Carter)

The Locks were entered in the National Trust’s “This Place Matters” challenge in 2011. (Photo credit: Sandy Carter)

Up until the past decade, the locks were well-managed and maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers who took ownership in 1915. In November 2011, after investing $2 million in repairs to the historic facility, the Corps closed them indefinitely, eliminating opportunities for commerce, recreation and tourism.

Our National Trust Treasure team is working hand-in-hand with the One Willamette River Coalition, Willamette Falls Heritage Foundation, Willamette Falls Heritage Area Coalition, and other partners, including the Army Corps, to identify a new owner for the Locks and eventually transfer them to new ownership. Our success will set precedent for other communities working with the Army Corps and will avoid the closure of a truly extraordinary transportation resource. We will consider this National Treasure saved once a sustainable, long-term plan is created to put the Willamette Falls Canal and Locks back to work.

Peggy Sigler is the Oregon Field Officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Learn more about the Trust’s work to preserve the Willamette Falls Canal and Locks.

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