McNARY - On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, about 150 former and current employees and onlookers turned out at McNary Dam's Spillway Park Thursday morning to kick off a day of events honoring the economic dynamo on the Columbia River and the people who made it happen.
The morning ceremony featured a slate of speakers, including Lt. Col. Randy Glaeser, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers Walla Walla District.
Animated and energetic, Glaeser's comments linked the Corps' efforts to rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq with its efforts to save fish and produce electricity at McNary.
When the Army Corps of Engineers was asked to help, "The Corps answered," Glaeser said.
State Sen. David Nelson, a Republican from Pendleton, delivered the day's keynote address, reminding those in attendance - many of whom were present 50 years ago for President Dwight Eisenhower's dedication speech - of the original mission of the dam: To produce the most good for the most people.
Nelson began by quoting Eisenhower's speech that September day in 1954: "This structure symbolizes the purpose of using for the benefit of all our people the tremendous natural legacy with which the Almighty so abundantly endowed our land."
Nelson positioned Eisenhower's words beside what he sees as today's reality.
"Would he be disappointed in our current state of handling the river system?" Nelson asked. "I believe he would."
He cited figures that say Oregon uses only a fraction of the water in the Columbia. Increasing the amount of water available for use would create a bonanza for the state, he said.
"Water is Oregon's oil," he said.
The event was also meant to recognize the men and women who worked on the dam and to reflect on the dam's present and future. Part of that recognition took place when speakers read the names of more than 20 employees who died building the dam. After a moment of silence and a few handkerchiefs to dry tears, a trumpeter from the First Corps Army Band out of Ft. Lewis, Wash., played "Taps."
Although speeches kicked off the day's activities, which included tours of the dam and a party later in the evening, they weren't the initial draw for Gloria Lampkin of Echo. She came to catch up with old friends and coworkers.
She worked at the dam for more than 37 years, retiring at the end of 1990, and brought along her old hard hat. She came to see the people she spent a large part of her life working with.
"Just like some families, it takes a wedding or a funeral to get everybody together," said Lampkin, 77.
Pasquale Anolfo, a park ranger for the dam, said the celebration wasn't so much for the dam itself but for the people who built and maintained it for its first 50 years.
"It could be here for another 100 years," Anolfo said. "We take it for granted, but they don't."
Russ Hughes, 69, a tour boat captain from Richland, made the trip 50 years ago to see the president speak. He made the trip again for old time's sake.
"Regardless of your party affiliation, it was a good thing to be there for," he said while perusing old photographs after the ceremony.
Later in the evening dozens of former and current employees, and their families, gathered at the Eagles Lodge in Hermiston for dinner, a slide show and dancing.
Alcy Lamb of Hermiston, 72, served as a tour guide at McNary for 16 years before she retired in the mid 1990s. Looking around at all the familiar faces, she said, "It's pretty much a class reunion," a sentiment shared by many of the other party-goers.
"Every one but me has gotten so much older," she joked.
Some things have changed at the dam, others remain the same, she said. Although the parks and grounds surrounding the dam were impressive, Lamb said she was "disturbed a little bit" by the number of fences, part of the new security measures since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
"It's just too bad," she said, remarking how easy it used to be to visit co-workers in the dam. "It's a sad commentary on the times."
Merlin Cassens, a rigger, still works on the dam after almost 34 years. His father was a carpenter during McNary's construction and worked at the dam for many years. At 52 years old, Cassens has spent most of his life around McNary Dam people.
"I know so many people here it's hard for me to keep still," he said.
Wayne Condit, a journeyman operator at McNary who lives in Plymouth, Wash., is considered a new face, although he is the same age as the dam, he said.
After spending most of his life in the timber industry, he returned to school and has been working at McNary for about five years.
Thursday was his day off, but he came in to work to help conduct tours.
"It's still a new job to me," Condit said. "I learn something new every day it's so big."