By editorial board • 

Restoring locks could unlock new potential

Multnomah Falls, which carries Multnomah Creek over a 620-foot drop about 30 miles east of Portland, draws more than 2 million visitors a year. Willamette Falls, which channels the mighty Willamette River over a 40-foot drop about 25 miles south of Portland, attracts virtually none.

The volume pouring over Willamette Falls ranks second nationally only to that of the vastly better known Niagara Falls, one of the most visited natural wonders in the country. But unlike its illustrious brethren, Willamette Falls has been heavily industrialized for more than a century, almost entirely obstructing both visual and physical access.

That’s now beginning to change in a big way, though. And the falls themselves, nestled between Oregon City and West Linn, don’t represent the only prize.

To traverse the 1,500-foot-wide falls back in the day, when waterways transported far more goods than their rudimentary road and rail counterparts, a network of massive locks was installed in 1873. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assumed control in 1915 and continued to operate them until 2011, serving to maintain a vital connection between the upper and lower sections of the Willamette — and by entension, tributaries like the Yamhill, which runs through McMinnville.

The Corps is now offering to convey the locks to a governmental consortium or public-private partnership. The aim would be to reopen the locks, allowing resumption of commercial and recreational traffic through what otherwise looms as an insurmountable barrier.

At the same time, closure of the last of the mills overlooking the falls has opened hundreds of acres of spectacular riverfront for compatible redevelopment. The ripple effect stands to be felt downriver in the Yamhill County communities of Newberg, Dundee, Dayton, Lafayette and McMinnville.

In the course of the 19th Century, riverfront land was largely overtaken by ports, canneries and paper, lumber, flour and steel mills as the industrial revolution swept west. But these longtime industrial tenants have started to loosen their grip, and cities have increasingly begun seizing advantage by fostering residential, commercial and recreational oriented redevelopment.

Portland, Salem, Covallis, Albany and Eugene have all embarked on ambitious redevelopment projects on the Willamette, as have smaller communities interspersed between them. Astoria, St. Helens and Hood River are among cities following suit to good effect on the Columbia.

McMinnville lacks immediate Willamette River access, but it enjoys extensive access to the Yamhill, which flows into the Willamette east of Dayton. So it joins other Yamhill County communities in having a stake in helping realize redevelopment of the locks.


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