Commemorating the Whiskeytown Dedication
● By Kerri Regan
It’s been a half-century since former Redding Mayor Robert Anderson watched President John Fitzgerald Kennedy address 10,000 people at Whiskeytown Lake, but he distinctly recalls the overwhelming feeling that he experienced that day.
“When his helicopter landed on the dam, it was the same emotion as when you hear ‘The Star Spangled Banner’—you get that lump in your heart,” says Anderson, who served as master of ceremonies when JFK dedicated the dam on Sept. 28, 1963.
It was a much-anticipated victory for Anderson and the rest of the dedication committee, who were turned down the first time they asked if Kennedy would make the trip. “They reconsidered, and we were the only stop he made on his western tour,” he says.
An advance team came to the North State the week before Kennedy arrived, working from the Chamber of Commerce office to strategize the president’s security. “Secret Service people were on each little hilltop around there,” says Anderson, then the Chamber president. “I asked them if it was dangerous to have the president out in such an open area, and they said no; it was less dangerous than when he was in a big city surrounded by high-rise buildings” – an eerie premonition of the fate that befell the president just eight weeks later in Dallas.
Retired Shasta College President Gary Lewis was a 13-year-old Boy Scout on that day. Highway 299 was closed for security, so thousands of attendees were shuttled to the dam from Shasta High School. “The Boy Scouts were all lined up around the processional for President Kennedy,” Lewis says.
While sailboats bobbed on the lake’s crystal blue waters, Kennedy spoke of the dam’s ability to irrigate farms, generate power and increase recreation.
“For too long, this water ran unused to the sea,” Kennedy told the crowd. “For too long, surplus water in one area was wasted, while there was a deficit nearby. Now, by diverting these waters to the eastern slope, we can irrigate crops on the fertile plains of the Sacramento Valley and supply water also for municipal and industrial use to the cities to the south. And while running their course, these waters will generate millions of kilowatts of energy and help expand the economy of the fastest growing state in the nation. In these ways, Whiskeytown Reservoir and the Trinity Division will add to our natural beauty and will show that man can improve on nature, and make it possible for this state to continue to grow.”
Jeff Engell of Crown Camera has become a scholar of sorts on the event after putting together a 48-minute DVD from footage, pictures and movies from numerous sources, including KRCR-TV’s first-ever live remote. “You can watch the live broadcast as it happened,” says Engell, whose grandparents donated the maple rocking chair that the president used for the occasion due to a bad back. The DVD also features interviews with Anderson, Larry Carr (Kennedy’s campaign manager for Northern California), civic leader Lou Gerard, 1962 Miss Shasta County Sherry Fredricks, and Rudy Balma, who emceed the dedication ceremonies a year later at the site. Also interviewed was Terri Hazeleur, “the Hayfork Hiker.”
“Her teachers wouldn’t let her out early, but she led a group of girls to hike from Hayfork to Whiskeytown,” says Jim Milestone, superintendent of Whiskeytown National Recreation Area.
“Their parents drove up and down the highway all night to help the girls get to the dam. They arrived at about 6:30 am, and Congressman Bizz Johnson bought them hot dogs and Cokes. After the speech, they called for Terri to come to the podium. She got to meet President Kennedy, and she was surprised he wasn’t taller than her father. But she said he had really good cologne on.”
The trip to Whiskeytown spotlighted Kennedy’s interest in conservation, Milestone says. “He was touting not just the completion of the Trinity River division, but the idea of feeding the world, providing great fruits and vegetables to America,” Milestone says. “He was talking about the economy, and how the bigger picture of conservation across America and the accumulation of all these projects was going to make America stronger for the future, and really a powerhouse for food production, as well as recreation.”
In the ensuing half-century, those who were present at the dedication still identify Whiskeytown as one of the North State’s greatest treasures.
“I was a kid when the lake was being filled up, and that was the place to go,” recalls Lewis, president of the Shasta Historical Society, who took his wife to Whiskeytown on their first date in 1975. “There were rope swings all along the lake. We had a Boy Scout troop campground at Oak Bottom. My wife and I have four boys that we’d take out to Brandy Creek. It’s a great local attraction.”
Some 800,000 people visit Whiskeytown annually; James Carr’s vision of having trails in the park has come to fruition, and the park’s historical ties to the Wintu tribe and the Gold Rush era have been preserved. “And the story continues on into the future,” Milestone says.
A 50th anniversary celebration is slated for Sept. 28, starting with a sunrise ceremony at 6:30 am at the Kennedy Memorial. Then at 10 am at the David Marr Auditorium at 2200 Eureka Way in Redding, a free public event is being organized by the Shasta Historical Society, the National Park Service, Friends of Whiskeytown and the Shasta Union High School District. Panel discussions will focus on Kennedy’s visit and the role of Whiskeytown and the Bureau of Reclamation as they manage water into the future.
“We’re starting with a historical perspective, but also talking about where we are now with the water in Northern California and the future of that water,” Lewis says. “It’s important—this is part of our heritage and our history.”
Guests are invited to bring photographs and their own stories about the president’s visit. “I just met a man this morning on a kayak tour who remembers Kennedy coming to the fence at the airport – he left the motorcade and walked over and shook everyone’s hand,” Milestone says. “He said, ‘How are you today, Mr. President?’ and President Kennedy, in his Boston accent, said, ‘I’m doing fine – it’s a beautiful day.’ Little stories like that are great vignettes.”