Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Saddest Scene in Oregon

For those of you who know me, you'll know this:  I love Oregon.  I was born here, right in the beautiful city of Portland and spent my teen and young adult years in the quaint town of Newberg.  I am both a city girl and a country girl (hence, the title of my blog!), and I love the aspects and nuances of both lives.  Sometimes I even have daydreams that would border on being a tree-hugger---living in the forest, foraging for berries and wildflowers, letting my hair go curly and wild, skipping the make-up, and cozying up in my cabin to write books.  Then once a month I'd get all dressed up with high heels and pretty hair and spend a weekend in the city shopping and eating at great restaurants, soaking up culture and drinking coffee!  Ahhh, wouldn't that be the life!

But anyway, here I am in my small-town subdivision caught somewhere in the middle of those two lives.  This week, my husband and I are in the city to attend a conference, so I am getting my Portland coffee fix and eating yummy food every day.  One afternoon when we had some free time between sessions, we decided to go on an adventure.

Jeff had read a few years ago that there were some large waterfalls just off the I-205 freeway that we often travel.  They are the second widest falls in the U.S. next to Niagara Falls and the 17th widest falls in the world.  So why hadn't I ever been there, he wondered.

I didn't have an answer.  Yes, I'd heard about them, but only vaguely.  I, who have hiked too many falls to count and even got engaged beside one of them, had never seen these grand Willamette Falls that Jeff was so curious about.  Well, that made him even more curious.  Why hadn't I ever seen them?  Why did I know nothing about them?  He decided he wanted to see them, so one day when we were driving down the freeway, we pulled over at the view point and peered through thick foliage to catch a glimpse of nothing but mist down below.  Well, that was disappointing!  Now we were both curious about the hidden falls and why they were so unknown and unaccessible.  We decided that one day when we had some free time we would search out a way to see the falls.  That free time came this week.

We first drove into the town of Oregon City for lunch and coffee.  I had read about a little café that was supposed to have good food.  After an incredible amount of rain this past week, the sun was finally starting to break through the heavy clouds and the rain actually stopped for a couple hours just for us!  The café was cute and cozy, and we enjoyed paninis and lattes and the art gallery before our adventure.  Jeff asked the girl beside us if she knew of a way to get to the falls.  She apologized and said no.  Jeff asked the girl taking our order, and she also didn't know.  We drove away on our own, following what I had learned online:  There are four viewpoints, one from the bridge, one from the bluffs, one from the highway and one from the freeway.  We headed down the hill toward the river and parked alongside the edge of the river walkway high above the water below.

We looked over the rusty rail separating the walkway from a steep river bank that dropped straight down to swirling brown water that carried foam on its surface, picked up from the polluted liquid that pumped out of the many pipes feeding directly into the river.  We could finally see the falls in the distance, but they were obscured with mist and hidden by the many mills lining the banks.  We walked along the sidewalk towards the falls, noting how decrepit the railing and the promenade were.  We got to the "view point," and realized we were still nowhere near the falls.  We could see them now, but they were too far away to appreciate their beauty or power.  So we got back into the car and took the highway up to the bluffs above us.

Here was the best viewpoint so eyeful of ugly, dirty industrial buildings in a terrible state of disrepair, sucking the beauty and the life out of the churning falls.  A few other people were also "admiring" the view.  I remarked out loud how sad a scene this was.  A woman next to me overheard me and said, "Why?" in a puzzled tone.  "Well," I explained, stating what I thought was pretty obvious, "The falls are ruined.  This could be a beautiful spot."  She shrugged nonchalantly and walked back to her car with her daughter, who had been reading aloud the history of the industrialization of the falls from a memorial plaque.  I walked a little further down to try to get closer so I could take some pictures.  When I returned, Jeff was talking to a big man in a dirty mechanic's jacket with unkempt hair and scruffy beard.  He was reciting the history of the mills very matter-of-factly and, like the woman, didn't seem bothered at all by the desecration of the falls.

The mills were some of the creepiest buildings I had ever seen.  They were built in the late 1800s and were still standing...and still, 150 years later.  The metal siding was rusted right through in places, the windows were shattered, the iron railings and staircases were rusted, the roofs were thick with moss, and the black smoke stacks continually spewed gray clouds while the river thrashed wildly over the rocks and locks.  I found a metal staircase and climbed to the top to get a better view.  There were no great views...these falls were purposely ignored by the public  The forgotten falls were life to this small town, providing jobs for a majority of the workforce.  They were also the source of power---and therefore life---to the big city of Portland.  Suddenly it all made sense.  The silence of all the activists, native Indians, nature-preservists, outdoorsmen, earthies, and hippie tree-huggers was due to the fact that without those powerful, awesome falls there would be no powerful, awesome Portland.  And for the little city that once bore the name of the falls, all those power plants and mills provided employment for many of the residents.  No one wanted to see the mills close down or the source of power eliminated, but no one wanted to see the rape of the falls and the ravishing of their beauty either, so they were tucked away out of sight and not spoken of.

So now we knew the story.  We walked away without much to say.  All my "for shame!" ideologies were quieted by the knowledge that the most populated area of my beloved state drew its very life from these falls.  The scenery was sacrificed for the city and its citizens.  When we got back to our hotel room, I went online one more time and clicked on the link for the Willamette Falls Legacy Project.  This is what I read:

Willamette Falls Legacy Project
For the first time in 150 years, Oregonians have the opportunity to rediscover a cultural and scenic treasure: Willamette Falls. A public vision and master plan are taking shape, with the goal of transforming a 23-acre industrial site nestled along the Falls in historic Oregon City. This former paper mill could someday serve as an economic engine, a waterfront destination, a unique habitat, a window into Oregon’s past – and a bold step into our future.  Whatever develops on the landscape will be shaped by Willamette Falls, roaring in the Willamette River below. The largest waterfall in the Pacific Northwest, it was long an important cultural and gathering place for Native American tribes. The Oregon Trail ended here. And throughout the 1800s, the Falls made history by generating energy for Oregon’s early industries and cities and fueling the nation’s first long-distance electrical power transmission.

So I am encouraged!  There is hope that one day the beauty of the falls and power of the falls can both be appreciated.  Maybe I should join the committee!!

Here are some fascinating pictures...I wish I had more than my slowly dying, ancient iPhone to capture the scene.

Far down the river, the foam floats by

Could be a beautiful view, but the brown water looks dark and dirty

Nothing is cared for here, not even the promenade beside the river

The first real view

I climbed these stairs for a better view of the buildings

I lined everything up so that only green trees
and water was visible.  You'd never guess
this was the same place!

1 comment:

  1. Oh Karyn, I visited Oregon City many times. Dad and his wife lived there. (Papa and Florence). We would drive by the falls and think the very thing you write about. That was....40 years??? ago??? probably longer. I hope I live to see the day they restore that area. Thanks for the 'update'!!