Many, if not most, of the landings on the Willamette River were natural places that were originally used by Kalapuya natives. Current Butte Street is one block long. It used to run all the way to a landing at the shore of the Willamette River. Because a seasonal creek ran down Butte Street it is likely that this drainage created a natural landing place on the east side of La Butte. This stream ran behind Butteville’s hotel, and the hotel advertised the “naturally-occurring stream” behind the building—a stream that now runs through a culvert under the road.
Hudson Bay Company trappers principally used canoes, 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 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 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.
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 was one of the early centers of hop production in Oregon, and 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 of 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 1905 when the “west-side” electric railroad (today’s Pacific and Willamette Railroad) was built across the Willamette River 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
Current 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 is 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.
Today, access is 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 1950’s, when the proprietors of the Butteville Store had a dock and there was access to the town and Store.
Friends of Historic Butteville is working with Marion County to improve the Butteville Landing right-of-way. We received a Marion County Community Planning Grant early in 2017 to complete the assessment phase (topo survey, engineering assessment and plans, landscape architecture planning), and have now launched a Capital Campaign to raise $35,000. We anticipate this project to cost approximately $200,000 and the Capital funds will comprise the matching funds required for many of the foundation grants for which we are applying. You can contribute to the Capital Campaign via PayPal or major credit card on the Support Us page. All contributions are tax-deductible.