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Locks Of Ages

Winter 1997 | Volume 12 |  Issue 3

THIRTY-FOUR CANOES IN ALMOST AS MANY COL ors glide down a forty-foot-wide channel of smooth water and gather by a weathered wood-plank wall under the blue Oregon sky. Their paddlers grab on to long cables tossed down from a walkway a dozen feet above, and all tie up together. They have entered the Willamette Falls Locks, cut into the rocky basaltic riverbank in the early 187Os. The scene looks utterly placid.

It could hardly be less so. Though still a valuable public utility a century and a quarter after they were built, the four locks—which bypass a forty-one-foot-high horseshoe-shaped falls on the Willamette River a dozen miles south of Portland—have been sorely challenged lately by both nature and man. Nature struck first. In February the flood of 1996 submerged the entire canal, locks, gates, and all, beneath a churning sea of water and debris. The locks couldn’t reopen until June. Man’s assault followed. On a narrow island between the locks and the falls stands a paper mill that opened in 1889. It belongs to the Simpson Paper Company. Simpson’s barges, carrying paper and other material, have until recently provided two-thirds of the tonnaee throueh the Willamette Falls Locks. In the summer of 1996 Simpson announced it was permanently shutting down.

Nonetheless the locks will go on. “We considered closing the locks,” says Chip Pierson, who runs them for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to which they belong. “But for all intents and purposes we thought about that for five minutes and let it go.”

The locks were conceived in 1868, when the Willamette Falls Canal and Locks Company was organized to create a way to avoid the portage then necessary around the falls. The company secured $200,000 in bonds from the state legislature in 1870 and, despite fierce opposition from a steamship company whose hegemony on the upper and lower rivers would be overthrown by an easy connection between them, got the locks built and opened in three years. The Corps acquired them in 1915 to end the monopoly on the river.

In 1941 the Corps replaced the original manual operating system with a hydraulic one and the old wooden gates with metal ones, but with their cladding of twenty-foot-long three-by-twelve planks, the gates and chambers look pretty much the way they always have. Each gate still has four slide gates at the bottom, each two by four feet, that open to let water flow through by gravity to change the level in the locks.

No transit is scheduled in advance, no pilotage or towing is provided, and there is no charge. You simply pull up your boat or barge and tug on a white nylon rope that triggers an alarm to let the operator know you’re there. Then you wait for directions by radio and proceed. It can’t have been much simpler in 1873.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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