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Blue Heron Paper Company

Coordinates: 45°21′17″N 122°36′45″W / 45.3548°N 122.6125°W / 45.3548; -122.6125
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Blue Heron Paper Company
The mill in 2013
LocationOregon City, Oregon U.S.
Coordinates45°21′17″N 122°36′45″W / 45.3548°N 122.6125°W / 45.3548; -122.6125
IndustryPulp and paper industry

The Blue Heron Paper Company was a paper mill at Willamette Falls in Oregon City, Oregon,[1][2] on the southeast bank of the river across from the Willamette Falls Paper Company, the T.W. Sullivan hydroelectric plant, and the Willamette Falls Locks and canal.

In its operation from 2000 to 2011, the mill produced recycled paper products ranging from newsprint to paper bags. Facing increased competition from China, the company filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009. By 2011, the mill could no longer remain in operation due to the rising paper prices and lack of investors.[3]

The confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde acquired control of the land in 2019 for $15.25 million, and are now planning a cultural and community center. Four other tribes cite ancestral connections to the area. Said Trustee Toby Patrick, "Money makes a huge difference in everything that we do, and it takes us away from who we truly are as Indian people, and how we survived before we had money. We had each other and that's how we survived."[4]


In 1829, under the employment of the Hudson Bay Company, British fur trader John McLoughlin claimed two square miles of land around the Willamette Falls. Sawmills were erected to secure the land and began producing lumber for the Hudson Bay company.[5][6] In 1832, McLoughlin directed his employees to blast a mill race along the falls and begin further construction of mills and housing.[7] Industrial expansion continued throughout the 1800s, and in 1866, Pioneer Paper Manufacturing Company was established.[8] This was the first paper mill in Oregon. Pioneer Paper Manufacturing Company closed in 1867, and from it came two new companies: Oregon City Mills and Crown Paper Company.

Oregon City Mills was a flour mill in operation until 1880, where it was purchased and then later absorbed into the Portland Flour Mills Co.[9] Portland Flour Mills Co. was successful and stayed in operation until 1907, when it was purchased by W. P. Hawley and converted back into a paper mill, becoming The Hawley Paper Company.[9][10] In 1948, The Hawley Paper Company was sold to Publishers Paper Co, who then became Smurfit Newsprint Corp in 1986. In 1998, Smurfit acquired Stone Container Corporation and became Smurfit-Stone. This acquisition was expensive and to help alleviate debts, the paper division of the company was sold to KPS Special Situations Fund LF of New York and mill employees in 2000.[11]

Under the title of Blue Heron Paper Company, production continued. By 2006, the company was completely employee owned and operated.[12] In the years following the shift to employee ownership, Blue Heron's financial situation worsened. Prices for the paper waste needed to produce paper increased by 70 percent. This increase was widely attributed to overseas competition.[13] In 2009, the company filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In 2011, Blue Heron Paper Company permanently closed citing rising paper costs and lack of investors.[3]

Indigenous history[edit]

The Clackamas and Clowewalla tribes resided above and below the Willamette Falls. These tribes were not hunter gathers, nor practiced agriculture, but survived by fishing the falls. Large groups of men would use dip-nets or spears to catch fish, and these fish would then be preserved by drying or smoking.[14] The fish were so plentiful that neighboring tribes would frequently come to trade and request fishing rights to the falls.[15] In addition, the tribes were expert boatmen and were relied on heavily for river transportation. The villages of these tribes were made to be permanent. They build lodges out of cedar planks, and these lodges frequently housed upwards of 20 individuals.[14]

Though there is no known number of individuals in the tribes, Lewis and Clark estimated that there were at least 1500 members of the Clackamas tribe before during their 1804 expedition. In 1829, the first oceangoing vessel to sail up the Willamette, the Owyhee, anchored in the Clackamas Rapids. The captain, John Dominis, had wanted to set up a fishery. Though the accounts of the interactions between Captain Dominis and the Clackamas people vary, they ended with the Clackamas people swimming out and cutting his anchor.[14] In the small amount of time the Owyhee had docked, malaria had spread to the tribes along the Willamette. In the winter of 1829–1830, over nine tenths of the Clackamas and Clowewalla had died from the disease. By 1855, only 88 members of the Clackamas tribe remained, and only 13 members of the Clowewalla remained.

The complete devastation brought by malaria left the tribes of the Willamette Falls unable to stop their land from being stolen by English settlers. Infrastructure and housing created by the settlers began to overtake the falls, and in 1848 the last lodge that had been built by the Clowewalla was deliberately burned down.[15] With no where left to go, the last 88 Clackamas people signed a treaty on January 10, 1855, which ceded all of their land to the US government in exchange for a ten-year annuity of $2,500. The treaty was ratified March 3, 1855, and the remaining Clackamas people were to relocate to the Grand Ronde Reservation.[14] By the summer of the same year, the US government had forcibly moved the remaining tribe members into the reservation, and refused to pay out any of the annuity.

Environmental concerns[edit]

In 2000, the Blue Heron Paper Company was sued by The Northwest Environmental Defense Center, alleging that the wastewater produced by the paper mill was too warm and violated the Clean Water Act. This warm wastewater was argued to be too hot for the endangered salmon that reside within the Willamette River.[11]

After the 2011 closure and subsequent abandonment of the property, multiple clean-up projects have been carried out. In 2013, concerns about copper and zinc leaking into the environment from the dilapidated pipes and roofs were raised, as there was a risk to the endangered salmon population. The runoff from the facility was run through a compost system to filter out excess amounts of such metals, and this process was continued for five years.[16]


After the paper mill's closure in 2011, the joining of 4 local governments (the City of Oregon City, Metro, Clackamas County and the Governor's Regional Solutions Team) formed the Willamette Falls Legacy Project. This project was meant to survey the existing site and begin planning for redevelopment.[17][18] In 2014 the group came to an agreement about the future of the project, and proposed to create a riverwalk in the place of the old mill. This proposal was expected to restore the surrounding environment, and create 1480 permanent jobs in the area.[17]

In 2019, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde purchased the site of the mill for $15.25 million.[19] The Tribes of Grand Ronde brought forth their own proposal for the redevelopment of the site, and began communications with Willamette Falls Legacy Project.[17] This budding partnership gained interest from the Willamette Falls Trust, which is a non-profit which represents four confederated tribes (Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, Yakama Nation and Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs) who have history within the falls. By 2021, all three independent groups had formed an official partnership to redevelop the site of the mill.[18]

In 2022, upset with the lack of any real progress on the redevelopment, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde pulled out of the partnership.[20]


  1. ^ Eastman, Janet (December 6, 2020). "Fire at former Blue Heron paper mill in Oregon City to be investigated". The Oregonian.
  2. ^ Powell, Meerah (December 5, 2020). "Old Blue Heron paper mill in Oregon City on fire". Oregon Public Broadcasting.
  3. ^ a b RECYCLING TODAY STAFF (February 24, 2011). "Blue Heron Permanently Closing Oregon Paper Mill". Recycling Today. Retrieved June 6, 2023.
  4. ^ Oregonian/OregonLive, Jamie Hale | The (March 25, 2022). "Willamette Falls remains a place of spiritual, cultural importance for Northwest tribes". oregonlive. Retrieved April 21, 2023.
  5. ^ body., Koler/Morrison Planning Consultants, issuing body. Oregon City (Or.), addressee. Oregon. State Historic Preservation Office, sponsoring body. United States. National Park Service, sponsoring. Oregon City, Oregon : historic context statement for the Park Place vicinity. OCLC 1137555867.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  6. ^ "Fort Astoria, 1813". historylink.org. Retrieved May 7, 2023.
  7. ^ Lockley, Fred. "History of the Columbia River Valley from the Dalles to the sea Volume 1 (p.1-555).pdf". ir.library.oregonstate.edu. Retrieved May 7, 2023.
  8. ^ "Brief History of Oregon City | City of Oregon City". www.orcity.org. Retrieved May 7, 2023.
  9. ^ a b Nicita, text copyright James. "Blue Heron Beginnings, PIONEER PAPER PATRIMONY". ClackamasReview.com. Retrieved May 7, 2023.
  10. ^ Lockley, Fred. "History of the Columbia River Valley from the Dalles to the sea Volume 2 (p.5-474).pdf". ir.library.oregonstate.edu. Retrieved May 7, 2023.
  11. ^ a b International directory of company histories. Vol. 90. Tina Grant. Detroit, Mich.: St. James Press. 2008. ISBN 978-1-4144-2974-8. OCLC 769044959.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  12. ^ "Beaten to the Pulp". Willamette Week. Retrieved May 7, 2023.
  13. ^ Oregonian/OregonLive, Steve Mayes | The (February 24, 2011). "Oregon City's historic Blue Heron Paper Co. to close Friday, eliminating all 175 jobs". oregonlive. Retrieved May 4, 2023.
  14. ^ a b c d "Upper Chinook Clackamas". www.usgennet.org. Retrieved June 5, 2023.
  15. ^ a b "Willamette Falls". www.oregonencyclopedia.org. Retrieved June 5, 2023.
  16. ^ Elizabeth Case, The Oregonian (August 4, 2013). "Blue Heron Paper Mill cleanup uses compost, gardens to treat contaminated water". oregonlive. Retrieved May 8, 2023.
  17. ^ a b c "Restoring Tumwata on the Walamt". Oregon Business. January 14, 2022. Retrieved May 9, 2023.
  18. ^ a b "Project History". Willamette Falls Legacy Project. Retrieved May 9, 2023.
  19. ^ "Tribe buys Blue Heron Paper Mill site". Smoke Signals. Retrieved May 9, 2023.
  20. ^ "Grand Ronde tribes pull out of Willamette Falls partnership". opb. Retrieved May 9, 2023.

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