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Willamette Falls & Sullivan Plant History

Willamette Falls: Long a power center

Willamette Falls has been an important economic and social gathering place for Native Americans to fish and gather lamprey eels off the rocks. The falls are deeply rooted in their culture.

Early white settlers soon realized the economic opportunities of harnessing the power of the falling water.

The earliest attempts to harness the power of Willamette Falls reportedly occurred in the 1830s at the direction of John McLaughlin, the Father of Oregon.

“Niagara Falls of the West”

As the U.S. entered the electric age, the 30 to 40 feet of water height, or “head,” at the falls was a natural for power generation, and the location was promoted as the “Niagara Falls of the West.”

Using generators originally employed in a Portland sawmill, the Willamette Falls Electric Company, a precursor of Portland General Electric, produced the nation’s first long-distance transmission of electricity on June 3, 1889. Power traveled from Station A in Oregon City to the streetlights in Portland 14 miles away.

The T.W. Sullivan Plant is born

Station B opened on the West Linn side of Willamette Falls in 1895. PGE closed Station A in 1897, but B continued operation, taking the name in 1953 of the PGE hydraulic engineer who designed the station, Thomas W. Sullivan. The entire development was called the Willamette Falls Hydroelectric Project.

By that year, the plant was generating 16,000 kilowatts, which it still does today.

A fish barrier – and solution

Before development, Willamette Falls presented a seasonal natural barrier to migrating fish. Spring Chinook salmon and winter steelhead were the only two species that could ascend the falls in later winter and early spring.

In a letter to the editor of The Oregonian on Aug. 12, 1870, a writer suggested that the Legislature build a fishway over the falls. He wrote that “salmon are found in all the waters of Oregon except those of the upper Willamette.”

In 1885, the first adult fish ladder was excavated out of the solid rock at Willamette Falls. Though primitive, this ladder did help fish move above the falls.

Technology and knowledge of fisheries advanced over time, and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife designed the current fish ladder, which was completed in 1971. Since 2005, PGE has performed maintenance on the fish ladder to ensure it continues to operate effectively.

How we’ve supported lamprey

PGE has also for decades conducted a research program for Pacific lamprey. Pacific lamprey are anadromous — they are born in fresh water, migrate to the ocean, and return to fresh water to spawn.

They are a traditional food source for Native Americans who harvest them at Willamette Falls. In fact, the Willamette Basin is probably the most important production area for Pacific lamprey in the Columbia River Basin. Learn more about lamprey in the Willamette River.

Our history of helping fish

Between 2005 and 2008, PGE installed a flow control structure at the apex (the most upstream point) of Willamette Falls, and a bypass chute (basically a water slide) at the Sullivan plant, to help juvenile salmon complete their journey to the Pacific Ocean.

At the Sullivan plant, flows entering the plant are managed so fish within the water column are guided past the turbine intakes and into a long concrete water slide that directs them back into the Willamette River just downstream of the falls.

The 200-foot-wide gated flow control structure, located at the tip of the falls, features concrete piers and  three 10-ft diameter inflatable rubber “gates” that lower to help fish avoid the rocks below by guiding them to the deep water at the base of the falls for safer passage.

These downstream fish passage enhancements at the two primary downstream migration routes (the powerhouse and the falls) have improved the success of downstream migrants passing the Willamette Falls on their way to the Pacific Ocean.

When fish swim, we all win When fish swim, we all win

Learn more about PGE’s efforts to protect and enhance fish growth in the Deschutes region.

When fish swim, we all win Get daily fish counts

Daily counts of winter and summer steelhead passing Willamette Falls are available online from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

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