New Law Begins Transferring Ownership of Willamette Locks for Revitalization Effort

Governor Kate Brown has signed a new law that begins the process of transferring ownership of the Willamette Falls Locks from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to a public corporation. Supporters say the legislation will help revitalize businesses and tourism around Willamette Falls.

House Bill 2564 establishes the Willamette Falls Locks Authority to negotiate the transfer of the locks from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Authority will act as the owner, operator, manager and regulator of the historic locks.

“I have been working on getting the locks reopening for at least 20 years,” Senator Bill Kennemer, of Canby, one of the bill’s sponsors, said in a press release.

Courtesy the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“This is the first step to turning the Willamette Falls Locks into an asset for our community once again,” he said. “As the Oregon City area continues to grow, the locks will provide a much-needed source of investment and growth opportunities.”

Built in the early 1870s, the locks are located on the west bank of the Willamette River and were designed to allow boat traffic to navigate beyond the 1,500-foot-wide basalt ridge that forms Willamette Falls and the T.W. Sullivan Dam.

The locks opened on New Year’s Day in 1873 and were operated by a number of different owners before the Corps purchased them from Portland Railway Light and Power Company in 1915 for $375,000. The locks were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

The locks were the oldest continuously operating, multiple-lift navigation canal in the United States until the Corps closed the facility in December 2011, citing safety concerns.

The federal government has allocated $3.4 million for repairs and upgrades of the locks, and Oregon’s congressional delegation is working to secure an additional $6.6 million for the revitalization effort.

Matching funds of $10-14 million of state bonds from the state are currently pending in the Ways & Means Committee to help the locks open and continue operating.

The Willamette Falls Locks, circa 1915.

“Operational locks will provide much-needed economic development, tourism and recreation,” Kennemer believes. “Now more than ever, our small businesses and citizens in Willamette River communities need some good news. This is some good news they can get excited about.”

A 2018 ECONorthwest analysis estimated that a functional Willamette Falls Locks could generate up to $100 million for the region’s transportation and tourism industries.

The bill passed the Senate on a 23-4 vote and the House on a 54-3 vote. Brown signed the proposal into law Friday, June 11.

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