Locks Of Ages
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.
Chip Pierson came on the job after the flood. He tells me, as we watch the canoeists untie in one chamber and paddle forward into the next, that he’s a resource manager, not an engineer. “I took this job eight weeks ago,” he says, “when the project manager in charge of the locks, John Wasson, retired. I was planning to work here a long time, until Simpson said they were closing. Now I’ll be here only until January 1997; they won’t need me, because the locks, which once were round-the-clock, will go down to one eight- or nine-hour shift a day. I’ll be back in the office in Portland, doing jobs like managing the sedimentretention structure at Mount St. Helens.”
As the canoes head out onto the Lower Willamette, two small pleasure craft bound upstream wait to enter. Years ago they might have had to wait for a string of barges hauling Douglas-fir logs to transit; now they pull right in.
“Here’s someone I’d like you to meet,” Chip Pierson says, nodding to a man in khaki shorts and shirt walking down the hillside toward us. “That’s my predecessor, John Wasson. He works for the sheriff now.”
I ask Wasson how long he ran the locks. “Too damn long,” he answers cheerfully. “For twenty years I was the mother hen around here, and I miss the people. But I’m disappointed in the paper mill. They’re giving up a hundred-and-ten-year tradition. But time marches on. And now I can put a bullet in this man’s head if he makes a mistake.” Soon he heads off to look for trouble out on the water.
Chip explains, “John always said, ‘When it stops being fun, I’ll get out of here.’ It stopped being fun for him with the flood. And now I won’t be staying either.”
We look at our feet and down nearby into the rough basalt cliff face behind the planking that encloses the lock chamber we’re next to. “But this will stay,” Chip says. “These locks will be here.”