Crossing the River

Before There Where Bridges

Boones Ferry, circa 1908 (Photo courtesy Old Oregon Photos)
By John KlattMay 2015

West Linn and Oregon City are located at an ancient transportation crossroad, with obstacles in either direction. On the river, Willamette Falls bars the way. Crossing the river, the Willamette is too deep to ford.

Still, the falls attracted early Native Americans. People came here to catch salmon and lamprey, creating villages on both sides of the river.

For centuries, visitors arrived to fish, trade and socialize. It's likely there was an organized way for locals to provide canoe travel across the river - an early form of ferries.

Canoe Above the Falls engraving, circa 1842. Detail of a sketch by Joseph Drayton

When European settlers arrived in the 1840s, they also stopped on both sides. John McLoughlin's town on the east became Oregon City, and Robert Moore's and Hugh Burns' towns on the west were named Linn City and Multnomah City.

The newly arrived immigrants had wagons, livestock and freight they wished to take across the river - items that wouldn't fit in canoes. Flat-bottom boats and log rafts were used instead.

In 1844, one of the first acts of the newly-formed Provisional Legislature was to charter two ferries below Willamette Falls to Moore (the "upper ferry") and Burns (the "lower ferry"). Hundreds of ferries were created throughout early Oregon - to support travel and bring income to their proprietors. Stores offered coils of ferry rope to ferry operators.

Most operators paid fees to license their ferries. Hugh Burns paid $25 a year. He was authorized to charge 12 1/2 cents for a "single footman", 25 cents for a person and horse, and $1.50 for a wagon and team. Pleasure carriages cost 75 cents, and sheep and hogs 3 cents each.

Some ferries were chartered to provide income for cities. In 1854, the Legislature gave the Oregon City Council the right to operate a ferry, and to use the proceeds to support the city's new school district.

Often, local businessmen offered free passage on ferries for their customers. Ticket books and monthly passage were also available.

Fording the Tualatin River, circa 1905 (Photo Courtesy of Old Oregon Photos)

While taking a ferry was safer than fording a stream, the ride could still be dangerous. In July, 1848 the Oregon Free Press reported that "as Dr. Thomas McBride, Jr. was crossing the ferry at this place, some cattle upon the boat became frightened and in his efforts to keep them on the boat he was knocked overboard and drowned". Many stories of lost teams, wagons and possessions were reported in the local papers.

Competition was keen. Peter Weiss (of Pete's Mountain) operated a ferry across the Willamette just above the Tualatin. "Dutch Pete", as he was called, urged southwest-bound travelers to use his ferry to avoid crossing the Tualatin, especially during winter.

Other owners attracted business by improving the approaches at each end of their ferries. The Argus editor commended John Taylor, proprietor of Taylor's Ferry, for "digging down the banks" to make his ferry easier to use.

While ferries provided an important service, some saw tolls as barriers to commerce. In 1859, the Argus editor wrote, "The Clackamas toll-bridge and the [Willamette] ferry... are almost as effectual barriers against the influx of county trade to this city as would be the Chinese wall... Who will come to town to trade, when he has to sell his load of produce for five or six dollars in trade, and then pay one dollar and fifty cents for ferriage?"

By the late 1860s, agitation for free bridges across rivers had increased. Francis Chenowith wrote, "Is the river a wall of separation? or is it not rather nature's indication of a center to which we are all more or less attracted?... The large town will naturally bridge the river for their own convenience;... the canoe and ferry boat will be 'played out'".

In 1870 a 350 foot long free bridge was completed at Scholls Ferry, portending the future of river crossings in this area.

When construction began for the Willamette Falls Locks, a large house for workers was built on the west bank, to avoid their needing to ride ferries each day. Completed in 1873, the locks reduced one barrier to river traffic, but it would be fifteen years before the first bridge at the falls would open the west bank to industry and neighborhoods, as it allowed people to easily cross the river to work.