The first white man to take an interest in the Willamette Falls area was Alexander Ross of the North West Company, in 1815.
Near the mouth of the Clackamas River, there once stood an old, moss-covered, seemingly dilapidated house 300 feet long. In it lived the entire Clackamas Indian tribe. The Indians along this portion of the Wal-lamt, or Willamette, River were hosts to the hundreds of migrating Molallas, Calapooyas, Multnomahs, Teninos, and Chinooks who came each year to catch salmon at Hyas Tyee Tumwater — what white men named Willamette Falls. The Indians’ permanent marks can still be seen in petroglyphs at the base of the falls on Black Point.
The first white man to take an interest in the Willamette Falls area was Alexander Ross of the North West Company in 1815, who recognized that the falls could supply reliable, year-round power to mills along the river banks. In 1829, John McLoughlin established a land claim at Willamette Falls in the name of the Hudson’s Bay Company and began to encourage former trappers to settle nearby. McLoughlin would later buy out the HBC’s interest, putting the claim in his own name before retiring. Next were the Methodists in 1840, when the Reverend Alvin Waller established a mission and started building a church. The Methodists and McLoughlin would be at odds for a dozen years, driven more by strength of personality than by the soon mooted battle for political supremacy in Oregon City.
McLoughlin surveyed and laid out the townsite of Oregon City in 1842, replacing the commonly used name of Willamette Falls. Oregon City has always been a natural place of commerce, a narrow spot in the river valley where Indians came together to trade and fish and where whites found abundant and dependable power for mills and generators. The first business, the American Store, was established in 1840 by Captain Couch, who represented J.P. Cushing of Massachusetts. In 1843, Francis Pettygrove opened his Red Store. He and Oregon City lawyer Asa Lovejoy would later stake the claim which grew into the city of Portland. In 1844, the HBC opened their own store at Oregon City. The three stores were founded in response to the increasing numbers of Oregon Trail immigrants who needed to be resupplied to start their farms.
In 1844, Oregon City was incorporated by the Oregon Provisional Government. It soon had 500 residents, 2 churches, 2 saloons, a newspaper, 75 houses, 2 blacksmiths, 2 coopers, 2 cabinet makers, 2 hatters, 2 silversmiths, and 4 tailors to resupply and properly clothe the new settlers.
Along the northern edge of McLoughlin’s townsite was the land claim of George Abernethy. He was a steward of the Methodist Mission from 1840 to 1844. He supervised their granary and operated a mercantile business. He invented and circulated “Abernethy rocks” — flints inscribed with his initials and backed by his high standing — for making change due to the lack of circulating currency. From 1845 to 1849 he served as Provisional Governor, the first man to be elected governor of Oregon. Abernethy Green, a grassy meadow just above his house, was the marshaling point for new arrivals, both those arriving by raft from Fort Vancouver and overland via the Barlow Road.
In 1845, John McLoughlin retired to Oregon City. He immediately applied for U.S. citizenship and started building his house. The Provisional Government denied his request for citizenship, as they recognized that they had no authority to grant it. When Oregon became a U.S. Territory in 1849, McLoughlin applied again and was duly naturalized on September 5, 1851. At this time, he was serving as Mayor of Oregon City. As a newly-minted American citizen, McLoughlin applied for land patents under U.S. laws to secure the claims he made while working for the HBC. Due to misrepresentation and false statements made before the United States Congress and Supreme Court by U.S. Delegate Samuel Thurston and Methodist missionary Jason Lee, the McLoughlin claim was denied. McLoughlin died in his house, without title to it, in 1857. In 1862, title to most of his claim was sold to his daughter Eloisa.
Oregon City was the first capital of Oregon. The Provisional and Territorial Governments met there from 1844 to 1853, when the capital was moved to Salem. Other firsts for Oregon City included the first newspaper (1846), mail delivery (1846), jail (1845), library (1845), and debating society (1842) west of the Rocky Mountains. Later pioneers built the first public elevator and, in 1889, successfully undertook the first long-distance transmission of electricity in North America.
In the 1840s and ’50s, Oregon City became rich from the gold discovered in California. Merchants plying the coastal runs and canny citizens who knew an opportunity when they saw one sold lumber and wheat to boomtown residents for up to a thousand times what it cost to buy in Oregon. Gold dust flowed north into Oregon in such quantities that the Provisional Government had to authorize the minting of coins in Oregon City to keep the economy in order. California gold paid for a dozen fine mansions built along the rim of the bluff above Willamette Falls.
Industry in Oregon City began early, when McLoughlin had a mill race blasted into the rock in 1830 to power a sawmill. Since then, the power of the falling water has been used to manufacture lumber, flour, woolen cloth, electricity, and paper.
The same terrain that hemmed in the Willamette River at Oregon City and created the falls made it something of a challenge to get around the falls. An 1852 attempt to build a canal was stopped by a fire just before a devastating flood destroyed any hope of salvaging the effort. A portage railroad was built by Ben Holladay, former owner of the Pony Express, in 1861. It operated until a canal and locks for raising and lowering ships were completed in 1872.
Oregon City has been drowned by eight major floods since its founding. The last was in February, 1996.