(I first wrote this in 2016, so the data may be outmoded. Also, I left the references at the bottom of each document page, which may be irritating)
The Beautiful Willamette
Samuel L. Simpson (1845-1899)
From the Cascades' frozen gorges,
Leaping like a child at play,
Winding, winding through the valley,
Bright Willamette glides away;
Onward ever, Lovely river,
Softly calling to the sea,
Time, that scars us,
Leaves no track or trench on thee.
What is this mighty Willamette River so often mentioned in conjunction with Oregon’s history and the valley of endless agriculture? This river that quietly makes us aware of its presence during so many day trips and Sunday drives. We have allocated it it’s own space, and we are mindful that it stays within it’s given bounds. We live in harmony with it, but the Willamette River has not always been the relatively tame and peaceful flat-water stream that we know and love today.
In the 19th century it was not unusual for the valley floor to become flooded with water, especially between December and February. Sometimes snow would come to the Cascade mountains, a warm spell would hit the mountains, and snow melt would runoff into the Willamette River’s tributaries and cause flooding that would send all the riverside inhabitants scurrying to higher land. Of course, earliest Euro-American settlers had no way of knowing about this habit of the mighty river but it wasn’t long before they found out about the Willamette’s tendency to flood once every 100 years.
On December 6, 1861 the Willamette flooded the town of Champoeg¹ as well as other towns along its course. This flood was so great that the course of the river was altered greatly, causing people to move away in order to stay close to the river which was in high use as a transportation network. These Euro-American Willamette Valley inhabitants relied heavily on the Willamette River for their
¹ Friends of Historic Champoeg, “1861 Willamette Flood,” 2010, available online at http://www.champoeg.org/learn-more/1861-willamette-flood.html (accessed July 10, 2016).
livelihood; farmers needing to transport their wheat to Portland and Vancouver for distribution to
California and Russia, a water-powered grist mill was operated on the river, and steam boat landings for passengers and goods were also maintained.
Unlike the Kalapuya, who were stewards of the valley long before the settlers arrived¹, the Euro-Americans were intent on building a permanent residence. Champoeg was one of the first towns settled along the Willamette and was the site of the monumental 1843 vote of 52 for, 50 against, which created an Oregon government, making Oregon a provisional territory of the United States, breaking the Oregon Territory off from England and ending the British Oregon empire. In 1861 Champoeg was a bustling center for commerce with a steady population of 200 people working in stores, as blacksmiths, running livery stables, saloons, a hotel, churches, a school and other services such as doctoring and carpentry. Very little of anything was salvaged from the area after the flood rescinded. The Willamette River had introduced itself to the settlers with a colossal force.
30 miles further South of Champoeg sat a town near Salem called Eola that was forever lost to the great flood. Eola was a bustling, thriving river town until the Great Flood changed the course of the Willamette. Eola was settled by Joshua Shaw and his son, A.C.R, shepherds who were the first to bring sheep overland to the Oregon Country along the Oregon Trail (1844). Upon arriving, they called the town Cincinnati, for it so resembled the town where Joshua had once lived. When Abigail J. Scott arrived in Cincinatti, she became the town’s first school teacher though she had very little education herself, having gained much of her knowledge from books she had read along the trail to Oregon. It is this very same Abigail J. Scott who later became Abigail Scott Duniway, Oregon’s leading suffragist.²
¹ Janice Weide and Jane Kirby, “Kalapuya of the Willamette Valley,” Salem (Oregon) Online History, 2005, available online at http://www.salemhistory.net/people/native_americans.htm (accessed Oct. 2016)
² Ruth Barnes Moynihan, Rebel for Rights, Abigail Scott Duniway,(New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1983) 50, 216
Tales of heartache and failure abound all along the Willamette River concerning it’s first Euro-American settlers, but those settlers hung in there and learned to adapt to the river’s ever-changing water levels. The 20th century brought developers who built the cure for the low-plain flooding of the Willamette Valley; the dams which would greatly curb the flooding caused by more runoff per acre than any other large river in the United States. Though not all flooding of the river has resulted in such drastic loss as complete towns or entire herds of livestock, the Willamette River has a long, well- documented history of flooding the valley. Just a few such floods were:
1861 is the largest flood of the Willamette River on record.
1890 was a very significant flood.
1964, the “Christmas Flood,” was rated by FEMA as a 100 year flood. $157 million in damage and 20 people lost their lives.
1996 flooding occurred despite the use of the dams along the tributaries because of the extreme weather occurrences: rapid, deep snow in the cascades/mountain ranges the last two weeks of January, sudden torrential freezing rain for a few days, then tropical rain came through melting the snow pack and flooding areas where it pummeled frozen ground.
The fertile lands of the flood plain led the valley to become more and more populous, but the threat of flooding was never far from thought. In 1936, Congress passed the Flood Control Act, which asserted that the federal government would aid in flood control on navigable waters.¹ what would become known as the Willamette Valley Project, which over the next 35 years would construct the 13 Willamette tributary dams we have today. This large-scale project, with engineers surveying and planning a system of dams that not only would prevent major wide-spread flooding but with the installation of treatment plants would aid in cleansing the river of the pollutants it suffered from the chemical wastes of the valley mills and production plants. The whole project was put on hold during
¹ William F. Willingham, Ph.D, Army Engineers and the Development of Oregon, (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 1983) 106.
WW ll, but all thirteen dams, primary and secondary sewage treatment facilities, and all other aspects of the Willamette Valley Project were completed by the early 1970’s.
On the heals of the damming of the tributaries came the regulation of industrial waste in an effort to keep the river clean, heralding applause from all across the country with its great success. Sadly, the 1997 Willamette River Basin Task Force reported that the water running off the valley floor into the river is polluting it nearly as much as anything else ever had. At least the dams are preventing wide-spread flooding; the pollution problem may have been a bit of an overreach for its time; dilution is not a good treatment for pollution. The Willamette Restoration Initiative was established by executive order based on the Willamette River Basin Task Force’s 1997 report.¹
In 1941 the first of the Willamette tributary dams was completed. Along the Long Tom River, Approximately 12 miles west of Eugene, the Fern Ridge Dam and Lake is known to be an excellent spot for birding and for viewing other wildlife. It is operated primarily for recreation in the summer; swimming, picnicking, boating, sailing, water-skiing, sail-boarding, fishing and other activities, as well as for flood control in the winter, while also being a part of a major wildlife management area.
Lane County runs five parks along the shores of Fern Ridge Lake, the Army Corps of engineers and the Oregon Fish and Wildlife operate a wildlife area as well as a park, and Fern Ridge Lake is home to the Eugene Yacht Club. All this can be found in this lake with a summertime area of 4.5 miles, 9000 ac, all masterfully contained by a 6,330 ft. long, 44 ft. high earth-fill dam with a concrete spillway.² Fern Ridge Lake is one of the most popular recreational spots in the region.³
¹ Jennifer Allen, Autumn Salamack, Peter Shoonmaker, “Restoring the Willamette Basin, Issues and Challenges,” Willamette Restoration Initiative, Sept. 1999, available online at http://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1957/51/?sequence=1 (access Oct. 13 2016)
² U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, “Fern Ridge Lake, Oregon,” Public Information, 2009, available online at http://www.nwp.usace.army.mil/Portals/24/docs/pubs/pamphlets/FernRidge.pdf (accessed July 10, 2016)
³ William F. Willingham, Ph.D, Army Engineers and the Development of Oregon, 1983, 115.
Cottage Grove Dam was built in 1942 on the Coast Fork Willamette River approximately 5
miles south of Cottage Grove. The lake is a popular area for boating, water-skiing, camping, and fishing. Analyses of fish tissue has shown disconcerting levels of mercury in the fish. This is likely due to Black Butte mine, just two miles away, which was once one of the largest producers of mercury in Oregon. Arsenic has also been reported in the area downstream from the dam at London Springs.
Dorena Dam was completed in 1949 along the Row River, about six miles east of Cottage
Grove. It is a popular boating lake, lending itself more to sailing ventures than to the water skiers of nearby Cottage Grove Lake. The city of Cottage Grove rests where the Coast Fork of the Willamette River meets the Row River, and Silk Creek runs through the west side of Cottage Grove, all of which make Cottage Grove a prime target for flooding. Before Dorena Dam was built, flooding was nearly as frequent as rainfall in Cottage Grove, but thanks to the Cottage Grove and Dorena Dams, it is less a worry to the townspeople than it used to be.
These first three dams are all constructed of earth-fill and concrete and none of them are built to generate any hydroelectric power. Although provisions in the original designs of the reservoirs were made for installation of power generation equipment in the future, as of yet, there have been no major adaptations to the original dams for that purpose.
At 463 ft., Detroit Dam, 1953, is the largest of all the Willamette River tributary dams and the first constructed with hydro-power in mind, hosting two power generators.¹ The first of the Willamette Valley Projects dams to be built after WW11, the 110 MW producing² dam is Located on the North Santiam River approximately 45 miles southeast of Salem. Detroit Dam was intended primarily for
¹ Tom Kline, Karen Bahus, “The Willamette Basin Reservoir Study, planning today for tomorrows water,” available online at https://www.oregon.gov/owrd/docs/1998_04_Willamette_Brochure.pdf (accessed Oct. 14, 2016)
² Hydroworld, “U.S. Seeks Turbine Bearing Refurbishment at 110-MW Detroit Dam,” 5/02/2014 available online at http://www.hydroworld.com/articles/2014/05/u-s-seeks-turbine-bearing-refurbishment-at-110-mw-detroit-dam.html (accessed 10/16)
flood control and the generation of power, but the reservoir has become one the most popular recreation sites in western Oregon as well. Measuring in at 9 miles, Detroit’s lake is nearly twice as large as Fern Ridge’s, yet its 735.000 yearly recreational visits only come close to the 768,000 visitors to Fern Ridge. All things boating, swimming, camping, and fishing are undertaken at Detroit Lake. The U.S. Forest Service operates four campgrounds, and the Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation manage two parks on the Lake.
Big Cliff Dam was built in 1953 as a re-regulator of the water released from Detroit Dam just 3 miles upstream. The purpose of the Big Cliff Dam is to aid in providing uniform stream flow into the North Santiam River. With Detroit Lake so close and easily accessible, Big Cliff Lake is not a recreational facility that is often visited because it is difficult to reach due to its high cliffs, and it lacks recreational options due to its small size.
Lookout Point Dam, built in 1954, is located about 22 miles southeast of Eugene on the Middle Fork Willamette River. Lookout Point Lake is a very large reservoir extending for more than 14 miles along the Middle Fork of the Willamette River to the Calapooya Mountains S.E. of Eugene. Not only has this Dam, coupled with Dexter as its re-regulator, prevented hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, it is also an important dam for the production of hydroelectric power. The lake is a poor fishing area, but popular for other water and boating sports and is home to many species of wildlife and flora. The 3,381 ft. long embankment structure contains a 274 ft. long concrete spillway with 5 gates. Controlled releases aid in water level control, power generation, and pollution control.
Dexter Dam was built in 1954 2.8 miles downstream from Lookout Point Dam as a re-regulator. Because of its ease of access, water-skiers sailboaters, and anglers, make Dexter Dam a popular day use recreation area; more so than Lookout Point. Together, Lookout Point and Dexter Dams have prevented
more than $5.3 billion in potential flood damage. Combined, they utilize four power generators
responsible for generating more than 370 MWHs of electricity.¹
In 1961 Hills Creek Dam was completed on the Middle Fork Willamette River about 45 miles southeast of Eugene. Hills Creek is operated in conjunction with Lookout Point downstream to meet the flow needs on the Willamette River during the summer. Windsurfers, water-skiers, sailors, swimmers, canoers, kayakers, and anglers, all enjoy recreating on this reservoir’s 44 mile water surface. The shoreline is managed as a wildlife habitat, with a 130-acre wetland area below the dam exhibiting fields, ponds, fowl, and beaver dams.
Cougar Dam, 1963-64, built on the south fork of the McKenzie River, is the highest embankment dam ever built by the corps,² reaching 452 ft. above the streambed. A rockfill structure with a concrete spillway, It houses 2 popwer generators Cougar Dam has a temperature control tower which takes water from the reservoir and spills it into the river at a controlled temperature in order to facilitate the spawning of salmon. Near Cougar Dam is a national forest for hiking and the Cougar hot springs for relaxing.
Fall Creek Dam was built in 1966 on, of course, Fall Creek; a tributary of the Middle Fork Willamette River, approximately 22 miles southeast of Eugene. The dam is a rockfill structure with a concrete spillway. The lake is a popular spot for all manner of water recreation such a boating, fishing, swimming, water-skiing, and the shores a favorite for hiking and wildlife viewing.
Green Peter Dam, built in 1968 on the Middle Santiam River, is a 380-foot concrete structure which has a gated spillway and two power generators. This dam is in a key location, resulting in the prevention of millions of dollars in damage since its completion. The reservoir is popular for boating
¹ ¹ Tom Kline, Karen Bahus, “The Willamette Basin Reservoir Study, planning today for tomorrows water,” available online at https://www.oregon.gov/owrd/docs/1998_04_Willamette_Brochure.pdf (accessed Oct. 14, 2016)
and fishing, being known as western Oregon’s premier Kokanee fishing lake.
In 1968 Foster Dam on the South Santiam River was completed just east of Sweet Home. It is a re-regulator of the water spilled from Green Peter Dam, providing a uniform stream flow. Foster Dam also plays an important role in storing water for flood control, irrigation, and power production. The reservoir is the most popular water-spot in the county, offering swimming, boating, fishing, camping, hiking and picnicking.