West Linn's Annexation of Willamette

While the town of Willamette - shown here on the dedication day for Willamette Methodist Church in 1909 - was the first incorporated town in the modern-day West Linn area, it was short lived. (Photo courtesy Old Oregon Photos)
By Roger ShepherdMarch 2016

2016 commemorates the centennial of the Town of Willamette being annexed into the City of West Linn. Through research of City Council meeting minutes and newspaper articles, the West Linn Historical Society has been able to determine the exact date to be Valentine’s day, 1916

The Town of Willamette had been incorporated five years before the City of West Linn, becoming an official town by electing a mayor and town council in 1908. The Willamette area was originally homesteaded by Ambrose Fields, his son, Joseph Fields and Marshall Perrin in 1842. The Fields sold some of their property to the Oregon Iron and Steel Company, who bought the property in 1880 to harvest timber to fuel its smelter operation in Oswego. B.F. Baker purchased the Perrin land claim in 1885.

The Willamette Falls Electric Company, generating electricity at the Willamette River Falls since 1888 (eventually became Portland General Electric), purchased land from B.F Baker and the Oregon Iron Steel Company in 1893. Nicolas O. Walden, working on behalf of the Willamette Falls Electric Company, platted the town of Willamette Falls, consisting of 17 blocks and 200 city lots. Later the name would be changed to Willamette. The town was designed to become a modern, electrified community to house the electric company’s employees. An electric trolley line was built from the Willamette area to the Willamette River Falls to carry employees and other passengers free of charge. The electric trolley, known as the Willamette Falls Electric Line (and later the Willamette Falls Railway Company), also carried cords of wood to the paper mills at the falls.

The City of West Linn was incorporated on August 15, 1913 after the West Side Improvement Club voted to incorporate several platted town sites in the Sunset and Bolton areas. In 1915, West Linn secured a partial ownership with Oregon City in the South Fork Water Board to provide a clean source of water from the Clackamas River. Cases of typhoid were reported in citizens of Willamette, as was true of many communities that drew its water from the Willamette River. Willamette, plagued by financial problems and Typhoid, looked to West Linn to provide them clean drinking water for the town. The City of West Linn was not interested in selling water to Willamette.

In early fall of 1915, the West Linn City Council passed a resolution for the Town of Willamette to cease being a town and to become a part of West Linn in order to receive water. This required a vote of the citizens of West Linn whether they wanted to “absorb the Town of Willamette and extend the city boundaries.” On December 6, 1915, West Linn voted 149 to 79 in favor of annexation of Willamette into West Linn. The following month, on January 3, 1916, the citizens of the Town of Willamette voted by a large margin to surrender their town charter and become part of West Linn.

In a front page story in the Oregon City Enterprise newspaper on January 7, 1916, the headline stated “West Linn to Vote on Merger Second Time – Flaw is Found.” The West Linn Council met in emergency mode to discuss the flaws in the proceedings and decided to hold another vote. On February 14, the citizens voted again (62 to 28) in favor of annexation of the Town of Willamette to the City of West Linn.

PHOTO COURTESY OLD OREGON PHOTOS - Willamette's last crop of students: First-graders at Willamette School in 1915, one year before the town was annexed into West Linn.

NOTES (from Larry McIntyre 7-27-2015):

Keep in mind that in those days, 1915-16, the actual West Linn City Council meetings were the culmination of issues discussed in various committees well before they got to the council level. The committees, roads, water, etc, were made up of 2 or 3 Council members. They were the department. Arguments for and against issues were thrashed out for the most part in committee. When it got to the Council level approval or rejection had generally been decided beforehand. Actual Council meetings were short compared to today’s meetings and just confirmed or denied issues. This is important in this case as in the Council Minutes we do not see the communications that went on between the Town of Willamette and the City before and after the approval to merge was granted.

Background: The driving force was what was to become known as partnership in the South Fork Water system. West Linn had secured a partial ownership in this new venture with Oregon City. This was vital to all concerned to find a clean source of water. There were many cases of typhoid in the communities that jointly drew their water from the Willamette River. What started out as the Pure Mountain Water League in Oregon City eventually became the South Fork Water Board with first and extensive water rights on the Clackamas River. In 1915 the South Fork board built 26 miles of pipeline from the upper Clackamas River to Oregon City. From here it could provide water to its financial partner West Linn.

The Town of Willamette really needed a solution as the drinking water in their area was from a private provider getting his water from the polluted Willamette River. This was not secret as many people lived in Willamette and worked at the Mills in West Linn or Oregon City. The Town of Willamette had few choices. It appears the City of West Linn wasn’t interested in sharing or selling water. We do not have any record of conversations or requests made by Willamette. I assume these were all “off the record”. Talk about hard ball.

Back to our story: Finally in early fall of 1915 a resolution was proposed - for the Town of Willamette to get to the water it would have to cease being a town and become part of West Linn. In order to do this, it appears that the process was that the citizens of the City of West Linn would be asked first if they wanted to “absorb the Town of Willamette and extend the city boundaries”. At the October 20th West Linn Council meeting the Council set December 6, 1915 as the date the citizens of West Linn would vote. And vote they did, passing the issue 149 to 79.

While we have no records of the activity, the Town Council of Willamette had previously met, prior to October 20th (the date of the West Linn Council meeting) and had agreed to ask West Linn that if they surrendered their town charter would West Linn accept them. A somewhat delicate dance of who goes first as you can see. The Town of Willamette set January 3, 1916 as the date for a vote. It passed with flying colors. We don’t have voting numbers for the Town of Willamette but the newspaper later said that it had passed with large support.

The short version of this story is: both Town & City did approve of joining – but that’s not the end of the story. It seems that there were “flaws in the proceedings” and as a result the West Linn side would have be done over again, now possibly in February according to the “Oregon City Enterprise” – dated January 7, 1916, page 1 –“West Linn To Vote On Merger Second Time – Flaw Is Found”.

The West Linn Council met in emergency mode and decided that Feb. 14th would be the next date for deciding the issue. On Feb 14th the citizens of West Linn approved of the issue 62 to 28 according to the “Oregon City Enterprise paper Feb. 18th 1916 – page 7”.

So take your pick as to dates. January 3rd 1916 or February 14th 1916. I kinda like February 14th – it has a special ring to it.

My main source of information came from the minutes of the West Linn City Council 1915 -16 on line EFiles - City of West Linn

Newspapers as referenced.