Located at present day Oregon City, there are few locations anywhere in Oregon that have been more important to it’s people. Before the Hudson Bay Company founded what would be become Oregon City in 1829, Native Tribes would fight wars over this strategic point. It was an important trade point for salmon fishing and trading. The Grande Ronde Tribes still ceremonially harvest fish here every year.
The Kalapuya (Calapooya) Indians usually had control of this area. At what would become the town of Canemah at the top (south) end of the falls, a village flourished on tolls from Natives using the portage trail. Another city, Linn City was built on the west side of the lower end of the falls, directly opposite of Oregon City.
Unfortunately by the time white settlers came into this area, disease had wiped out most of the natives. Both Canemah and Oregon City became important points on the Willamette River, linked together by the Native portage trail, then by a mule powered wooden railway in 1854. Like so many of the cities along the Willamette River, Linn City and Lower Oregon City were heavily hit by the flood of 1861. Dr. John Mcloughlin’s General Store was wiped away.
The first paper mill was built at the falls in 1866 by the Oregon City Paper Manufacturing Co. The Willamette Pulp and Paper Co. was established three years later next to the former location of Linn City. Both mills saw a succession of owners, the Blue Heron Mill on the East, Oregon City Side, was closed in 2011. While the West Linn Paper Company on the west side of the falls lasted until 2017.
Canemah never really recovered from the flood, especially after the dam and locks around the falls were completed in 1872, caausing trade to completely bypass the city. Today it is considered a neighborhood of Oregon City. Linn City only lives on in the name of West Linn.
The Willamette Falls Electric Company built the first hydro electric generation plant on the west side of the falls in 1888 to supply the City of Portland with Power. This plant was still in operation until 2011 as part of the Blue Heron Mill. Renamed to Portland General Electric, they built another power plant on the former site of Linn City. As of 2019 it is still in operation and generates 16,000 Killowatts daily for Portland.
The closed Blue Heron Mill site has seen several owners since 2011 who have had various plans to remove the old Mill buildings, restore habitat, build a water front trail/park and make the falls a destination for dining and shopping. As of August 2019 it was purchased by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, who include the dependents of the Calapooya Indians.
With their purchase, the restoration of natural habitat for the first time in almost 150 years is almost a certainty. Tours of the Blue Heron Mill, including some of the historic 1880s buildings are occasionally available. The Tribes, Portland General Electric, the US Army Corps of Engineers (who now own the lock,) Clackamas County, the State of Oregon, and of course West Linn and Oregon City are all working towards the end goal of developing the falls into a tourist destination.