Oregon has Designated its First State Heritage Area:

Willamette Falls State Heritage Area

Oregon Heritage Commission Unanimously Approves at 2015 Conference

April 24, 2015 – The Willamette Falls Heritage Area, which encompasses 26 square miles of natural and historic areas of Oregon City, West Linn and Lake Oswego, earned a State Heritage Area designation from the Oregon Heritage Commission, its first. The unanimous vote came on the second day of the Commission’s 2015 Conference at the Coos Historical & Maritime Museum. The designation culminates a nine-year effort by the Willamette Falls Heritage Area Coalition (WFHAC) that included contributions of agencies and individuals from government, business, industry, tourism, marketing, arts, heritage, historic preservation, and others.

Six governments operate within the Willamette Falls Heritage Area boundary and are each represented on its 23-member board including Metro, Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, Clackamas County, Oregon City, Lake Oswego, and West Linn.

“This marks a critical moment in the direction of the Willamette Falls Heritage Area Coalition and its goals by achieving State designation and further rooting us for more accomplishments ahead,” said Alice Norris, president of the WFHAC board of directors, and former mayor of Oregon City. “We thank the Oregon Heritage Commission for recognizing the importance of this area, and for setting a high bar for designation that makes this an exceptional accomplishment.”

The WFHAC formed in 2006 to advocate for, and strengthen the identity and economy of, the communities around Willamette Falls by preserving, enhancing and promoting the nationally distinctive stories of the area. They found that the federal and state heritage areas programs aligned with the goals of the WFHAC, which are to cultivate public-private partnerships to develop its natural, cultural, industrial, scenic, recreational, and historic resources.

“Out of this State Heritage Area designation, we intend to foster ‘heritage tourism,’ drive key economic development, and enhance cultural offerings in and around Oregon City, West Linn, Lake Oswego and beyond. But this is an equally important milestone as we move toward designation at the national level,” noted Norris.

History in the Willamette Falls Heritage Area

Willamette Falls, the second largest waterfall in the US by volume (usurped by Niagara Falls) holds a central place in the history of Oregon and the West. For centuries the falls has hosted salmon and lamprey fisheries valued by native tribes, and has been a significant center of trade amongst Northwest Indians.

The North American mass migration of the mid-nineteenth century deposited thousands of Oregon-bound settlers that disbursed from the end of the Oregon Trail in Oregon City. Oregon City became the Provisional capital of Oregon Country and later, as the new borders of the United States were defined, the Oregon Territorial capital.

Western industrial development radiated from the Willamette Falls area. The falls have powered a woolen mill, paper mills, a hydroelectric plant and other local businesses. The discovery and refining of iron in Lake Oswego provided the first commercial access to this commodity in the Western United States.  

In 1889 the world saw the first long-distance transmission of electricity – from Willamette Falls to 4th and Main in Portland. This proof that remote delivery of electricity was possible inspired rapid improvements in transmission and literally changed the world.

The Future of the Willamette Falls Heritage Area

The heritage area will be managed by Willamette Falls Heritage Area Coalition (WFHAC), which made the application. WFHAC completed an extensive application process to gain recognition of the heritage area. The organization highlighted historic preservation programs, heritage partnerships, long-standing signature events, and numerous local businesses that have operated for over 50 years. The heritage area includes 42 sites or districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The coalition has plans for a celebration in late summer or early fall of this year.