At dawn this Saturday, people from Redding and nearby places will gather at Whiskeytown Lake and stand where the president of the United States stood 50 years ago.
I wish the rest of California were up there with them.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, our country is doomed to endure an orgy of hoary remembrances, conspiracy theories and sleazy sex tales. But Californians have an alternative commemoration if they want it: On Sept. 28, 1963, Kennedy traveled to Whiskeytown, just outside Redding in the north state, to dedicate a dam and the lake it created. It was the last time Kennedy appeared in California, and the occasion and the speech Kennedy gave remain deeply relevant to the state today.
The history of Whiskeytown’s dam began with an audacious idea: to divert water from the Trinity River, which ran west toward the Pacific, into the Sacramento River, which would carry it to cities and farms to the south. Many of the political players and engineers who got the dam built were local boys, and they played an important role in changing early plans to move Trinity water through much of the area by tunnel. A dam, they believed, would offer many benefits for people in the region: more irrigable land, more water storage, more power, and a lake which, along with nearby hills and mountains, now constitutes the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area.
“They asked, ‘How do we focus not just on what’s needed in the population centers in terms of water, but on what’s in it for the locals?’” says Pat Carr, whose father, Laurence Carr, and uncle, James Carr, then a top official at the U.S. Department of Interior, were two of the locals who made it happen.
The locals asked Kennedy to add a Whiskeytown stop on his Western “conservation tour” in late September 1963 – a trip that author Thurston Clarke, in his new book, “JFK’s Last Hundred Days,” calls Kennedy’s “first campaign foray of the 1964 election.” High school girls in Hayfork hiked 35 miles through the night to Whiskeytown. Sailboats were brought in to make the lake prettier.
The speech Kennedy gave was no Gettysburg Address, but it was straightforwardly progressive. “This dam stands for the realization of an old and cherished dream,” Kennedy said – a dream that California’s natural resources would not be merely conserved, but used. He dismissed opponents who worried about the costs of building for the future. “As a general rule, every time we bet on the future of the country, we win,” he said.
Kennedy was killed less than two months later, and local remembrances of his visit have been frequent. This year, on the 50th anniversary, there will be a sunrise ceremony and a symposium on Whiskeytown’s history and California’s water issues today. Someone will probably point out that the diversion of all that Trinity River water did serious harm to fisheries and the river ecology.
But the Whiskeytown Dam also has a positive legacy. It still produces power. The national recreation area receives 800,000 visitors a year. Black bears and mountain lions roam there, and bald eagles build nests. The lake is also an inland hotbed of that sport so dear to Kennedy: sailing. Last weekend, the Redding Yacht Club held its annual Kennedy Memorial Cup regatta at Whiskeytown.
Today, our debates in California about development are usually framed as an either-or – develop or not. Kennedy and the builders of the ’60s may not have gotten the balance right, but when it came to conservation vs. development, they understood the need for both. And for action.
Right now California is stuck, unable to maintain its aging infrastructure, much less build for the future. At Whiskeytown, Kennedy congratulated Californians on approving a bond to pay for its water projects. “Things don’t happen, they are made to happen,” he liked to say.
The name Whiskeytown also has magic, as Kennedy himself recognized. In his speech, the president recited the first lines of Stephen Vincent Benét’s poem, “American Names” about place names in this country, but noted that Benét, in a serious oversight, had failed to pay tribute to Whiskeytown. Today’s Californians shouldn’t repeat the poet’s mistake.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for www.ZocaloPublicSquare.org.