Many, if not most, of the landings on the Willamette River were natural stream cuts to the river that were originally used by Kalapuya natives. The landing in Butteville is a naturally occurring slope created by the seasonal stream that runs around La Butte (the large basalt hill west of town) and drains down Butte Street. The Kalapuya would have used the landing to access the river, and camped seasonally on the high ground where the community of Butteville is now located.
Currently Butte Street is one block long. It used to run all the way to a stern-wheeler steamship landing on the river that was also the site of the Butteville Ferry (running across the river to West Butteville below Ladd Hill on the north side). The seasonal creek ran behind Butteville’s hotel (across the street from the Butteville Store), and the hotel advertised the “naturally-occurring stream” behind the building. The stream then ran down the street until it was tiled into a culvert under the road in 1910 to manage water flow and reduce mud
Hudson Bay Company trappers principally used canoes for travel and transport, so they tended also to use the natural landings utilized by Native Americans. Larger craft such as keel boats which transported agricultural goods would likely also have used the natural landing. The advent of stern-wheeler boats, that were steam powered and higher off the water in the 1850’s would have resulted in some amount of excavating or grading, and eventually the construction of docks with pilings. Evidence of those docks, with their adjacent warehouses can be seen in the 1905 photo taken from the ferry landing across the river.
Products transported downriver would go as far as Canemah, just above Willamette Falls, where loads were portaged around the falls. The first stern-wheeler steamship to ply the upper Willamette River was called The Canemah, and was built at Canemah and this community became the shipbuilding center for the region. Between 1851 and 1878, 27 steamships were built in Canemah to transport wheat, beef, agriculture, and timber products of the Willamette Valley to Portland and on to distant markets in California and the Pacific. In his book Willamette Landings, Howard Corning has documented 78 different steamboat landings between Canemah and Brantano’s Landing at St. Paul, and 25 different landings between Boones Ferry (south of Wilsonville) and Champoeg.
The river was the main transportation highway in the 1800’s! Most named landings used by early settlers would have been natural landings where the bank was low and accessible, and loading/unloading took place over gangways dropped to the bank. Only the larger and busier “river port towns” had docks. What made Butteville different and so successful was proximity to the high production agricultural area of north French Prairie and the location of one of three major north-south ferries across the river between Portland and Salem.
The landings of Butteville and Champoeg competed to be the principal ports servicing French Prairie farmers and ranchers who sought to transport their goods to Willamette Falls mills. Champoeg had the advantage until the flood of 1861 washed away the town. Butteville was also damaged by the flood but survived and recovered to grow as the principal shipping port above the Falls for agricultural products. During this period French Prairie’s principal crop was wheat, and it was one of the early centers of hop production in Oregon. Butteville housed hop insurance companies, warehouses and shipping facilities for this agricultural sector. However, major changes in transportation were on the horizon!
Access to the river and its docks was down Butte Street, the main street in Butteville. Completion of the locks at Willamette Falls in 1873 made river transportation to and from French Prairie all the more attractive and profitable, as the most direct route to Portland and the mouth of the river (42 miles) could now be completed without a stop, portage or transfer.
With the arrival of the “east-side” railway (then Oregon & California Railroad, now Union Pacific Railway) at Aurora in 1871, Butteville’s days as a major shipping port for wheat and other products began to fade because of the faster shipping option to Portland. Still, there was the journey to Aurora. However, in 1908 when the “west-side” electric railroad (today’s Pacific and Willamette Railroad) was built across the Willamette River [delete “in 1905”] with stops within a few miles of Butteville (at Arndt Road, Fargo, and Donald) the economy of Butteville really declined as the port and river traffic were displaced by the railway. This was the event that spelled the end of the stern-wheeler period on the Willamette River, and over the next fifty years, Butteville became a small rural residential community in French Prairie. What was left was a ferry crossing and the remains of docks and warehouses.
Recent State of Butteville Landing
What is today referred to as “Butteville Landing” is actually a right-of-way owned by Marion County that runs down to the river from where Butte Street turns east to become 1st Street NE. It has been periodically maintained by the County to provide access to the river. By 1938, after decades of not being used as a dock landing, the access was overgrown.
As recently as 1954 the landing at the bottom of Butte Road was still usable for access to the Willamette River.
Until recently access has been rough, there being no improved path or trail, and the slope being somewhat challenging. At the bottom are the remains of concrete footings dating back to the early 1900’s, when the community upgraded the docks to handle larger and increasing stern-wheeler and ferry traffic.
2017 Restoration Work
Thanks to a Marion County Community Planning grant, FOHB was able to complete a topographical survey, develop engineering project plans as well as landscape architecture plans for a restored Butteville Landing. Receipt of some small grants as well as significant contributions to our Capital Campaign made possible the first phase or restoration: removal of invasive brush and trees, rough excavation and installation of soil erosion to prepare for winter.
Friends of Historic Butteville is proceeding with fundraising and planning for Phase 3 of the Landing Restoration project for 2018. This phase will include final grading, installation of a ten-foot wide concrete trail down to the river, placement of two picnic and view areas and installation of native plantings. Phase 4 of the project in 2019 aims to install a gangway to a small dock that will hold a paddle craft dock as well as accommodate small power boats.
Restoration work to date has been made possible by:
- Contributions from local residents and supporters,
- Grants from the following:
- Marion County Community Services Dept.
- The Clark Foundation
- Marion County Cultural Corporation
- Northwest Farm Credit Corp.
- And, in-kind contributions by the following business supporters:
- McKillip Excavation, Inc.
- City Wide Tree Service, Inc.
- Northwest Floriculture
- Marion County Public Works