A few days ago I had the experience of touring the former Blue Heron Paper Plant, at Oregon City, with members of the media, to discuss this history of this incredible site at the Willamette Falls on the eastern shore of the river. This is the place, in the 1820s, where Dr. John McLaughlin established what would become the capital of the Oregon Territory. The Falls have been a draw since prehistoric times and as the second largest waterfall, by volume, in the United States (after Niagara), they quickly became the focus of a variety of Oregon’s earliest industries. McLaughlin himself had a small race cut out of the bedrock to power a sawmill and by 1865 what became the Oregon Woolen Mills was located here. In 1908, having left his position at what is now the West Linn Paper Company, across the river, W. P. Hawley established his own firm, the Hawley Pulp and Paper Company, on McLaughlin’s old claim and soon was producing 200,000 tons of paper products on a daily basis.
|Willamette Falls, from the old Hawley Powerhouse site, June 2012|
Hawley built a booming business, based on his own decades of expertise, a ready supply of timber, and the abundant power of the Willamette Falls. He rented PGE’s old “Station A” out at the head of the falls, built his own buildings for paper machines and mills, and the business spread out along Oregon’s Main Street, sharing the block with a hotel, a laundry and McLaughlin’s decrepit house. As he grew the business (and gave the house to the city, which moved it up the hill), Hawley’s structures became larger, more sturdy (concrete, not wood) and slowly took over the entire block. In the late 1920s Hawley built two new massive, concrete and glass buildings on the east side of the street (known as Mill B and Paper Machine No. 4), creating a clean streetscape of multi-story industral buildings. Eventually Hawley's paper company took over the old Woolen Mill property too, occupying over twenty acres lining everything on both sides of Main Street between the railroad line and the river.
Hawley sold the business to Publisher’s Paper in the 1940s and then a series of ownership changes in the 1980s and 90s culminated with the formation of employee-owned Blue Heron Paper Company, which sadly closed its doors about a year ago. The future of the site is unclear, though Metro has expressed interest in providing the public better access to “Niagara of the Pacific.” That is why the media was interested and that is why there is a lot of discussion on-going about the opportunities, and the liabilities, that result from over 180 years of industrial uses. Last week, on Wednesday, it was a beautiful day at the Willamette Falls. A lot of people are working to try figure out to create a situation where more Oregonians can enjoy the view McLaughlin did.