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A Guided Tour of Willamette Falls … and its Dramatic Future

Willamette Falls Oregon City Oregon
Nov 12, 2015

A Guided Tour of Willamette Falls … and its Dramatic Future

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All of us in Portland are aware of Willamette Falls, but how many of us have really seen it?

And we all know that there is an old paper mill there that’s closed, but how many of us know about the massive riverwalk being imagined and designed for that site?

Willamette Falls Oregon City Oregon

You can now take a tour of the abandoned paper mill just below Willamette Falls.

You can now take a tour of the Willamette Falls area in Oregon City, a tour which will take you into both of these worlds: as close to the amazing falls as you can get, all through the sprawling industrial site, and into the fantastic plans afoot to transform it into a riverwalk that will be one more thing to put our area on the map.

The site was abandoned in 2011, when the Blue Heron Paper Company went out of business after more than 100 years on the site. They left numerous buildings, including a foundation that dates to the 19th Century, along the south bank of the Willamette. The River was dammed at the falls years ago to generate electricity; those falls boast, at peak levels, a greater flow of water than any waterfall in America, other than Niagara Falls.

Here is an up-close video of the falls, from a viewpoint in the tour but otherwise cut off from the public:

Here, by the way, is a great video about the history of the falls:

All of this is impressive enough, but the grand plan for the site — a multi-use riverwalk development of business, residences, viewing platforms and wildlife habitat — is nearly mind-boggling. It’s a partnership between Oregon City, Clackamas County, Metro and the State of Oregon, working with several tribes as well as Portland General Electric, a private firm that owns the site, and a nonprofit called Rediscover the Falls.

Willamette Falls Oregon City

Getting ready for our free tour.

Right now the project is in a design phase, with some money already in place and initial design to be completed in 2017. Construction wouldn’t start before 2018, and even the project’s literature doesn’t hazard an opening-date guess.

But it’s possible to take a tour of the site right now, to see the historic structures, get as close to the falls as the public can, and learn more about the incredibly ambitious plans being hatched. I can’t recommend this tour enough.

You can set up your own private group or attend a regular public tour on Fridays. For more information on tours, contact Kelly Reid of Metro. To find out more about the project, see rediscoverthefalls.com.

If nothing else, it’s worth taking the tour just to get this up-close view of the falls. Plenty more photos and videos below.

I recently took the tour of Willamette Falls and the old Blue Heron Paper Mill with a hiking and walking group that I work with, and here is a photographic tour from that day.

I didn’t take notes or anything, so a lot of this is from memory, but I hope you’ll get the idea.

 

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

Can you spot the little bit of humor left over from the workers?

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

Looking across at the still-working paper mill across the way.

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

Kayakers on the river, part of a local tour company.

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

Inside the buildings is a maze of levels and supports.

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

A lot of it reminded me of a “Walking Dead” set.

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

This is technically Third Street in Oregon City. In fact, it’s all built on docks above the riverbank.

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

Looking downstream at the Oregon City Bridge.

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

One feature added since the closure is these catchments to contain runoff and filter it through vegetation.

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

The foundation still remains of a building that was built in the 1870s.

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

Detail of the foundation. Imagine if this was to become a big public open space!

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

It’s like the workers just walked off one day. And in fact, they did.

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

Nature is already taking over.

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

Nature taking over, smaller version.

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

See what I mean about layers and layers? When they needed to expand, they just slapped on more building.

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

Again, like they all just wandered off one day. I hope they leave some of this around as a tribute to the company.

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

Some of what’s left is little scraps of nature still there. This is a little “cove” that has flooded.

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

That same cove, with a layer of gunk over the top.

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

Not sure the purpose of this welded-on inscription, but it’s accurate.

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

Not sure the purpose of this sphere, either, but the tour guide says it’s staying.

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

There’s actually some cool graffiti around, which I think should also stay.

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

Again, a great tribute to the workers. It’s like you expect them to come back any minute!

The highlight for most people, of course, is that actual view of Willamette Falls. There’s actually a long dam over the whole thing, with the water flowing mainly through a slot in the middle. On the tour, you get to walk out onto the dam, admiring the river and many side falls up close, and then reach a building with a front-row view of the falls.

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

The original dam, which still lets some water through. Below is the original river bottom, previously under water.

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

The ducks seem unconcerned by our activity.

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

Heading out onto the dam.

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

Original power station, long abandoned.

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

Getting closer.

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

Right at the edge of the river and dam

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

Little waterfalls everywhere!

Vegetation along the way.

Water-top vegetation along the way.

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

Old machinery, rusting away.

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

Old machinery, detail. This needs to stay, as well!

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

Up onto the roof for the Big View.

I made these next three big, for proper effect:

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

Up close on the falls.

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

iPhone panorama shot.

Guided Tour of Willamette Falls in Oregon City

Wide shot — what we all came for!

 

And finally, here’s a video of the whole scene from the roof:

It’s a really amazing place, and I encourage everyone to get on a tour — either through a private group or with a regularly-scheduled tour. Check out Rediscover The Falls for more info.

Read all about my Portland hikes

or my hiking trips to Italy and England.

Or pick up a signed copy of my book,

60 Hikes Within 60 Miles of Portland.

 

Paul Gerald

I am the author of several books on hiking, camping, eating breakfast and chilling out. I am also a freelance travel writer, publisher, hiker, and inveterate traveler.

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