WENATCHEE — “Look, isn’t it a glorious sight?”
Public power forefather “Kirby Billingsley” asked the question.
An audience of nearly 600 people erupted in applause.
Dressed in a gray suit, gold hard hat and horn-rimmed glasses, local historian Bill Layman did look like Billingsley.
Rocky Reach Dam did look glorious.
The Chelan County PUD’s birthday bash Thursday for the 50-year-old dam rang with community pride and a fulfilled vision of locally controlled hydropower.
Audience members and special guests included people whose relationship with the dam goes way back.
The same year the Rocky Reach generated its first electricity — 1961 — the PUD hired 19-year-old John Brockwell as the dam’s first tour guide.
Sitting in his car in the parking lot, or standing at an entrance gate, he’d wait for visitors to arrive.
“One lady from Canada asked ‘What do you do with the water after you’re done taking the electricity out?’ ” said Brockwell, now 69, who was at the party to sing with the Apollo Club men’s choir. “I told her they send it down the river to Rock Island Dam to squeeze out a little more!”
He added, “It was really good pay, $250 a month. I’d work here on weekends and sweep floors at Grant Elementary School during the week. I had money to burn!”
Skip Laney, also part of the choir, remembers helping his father Harold Laney lug all his photography equipment up to the bluffs above the dam to get good shots during construction.
“It was amazing to watch it be built,” Laney said. “The things he took pictures of were just amazing.”
His father’s work comprises much of the PUD’s historic photo collection.
“He’d hang outside an airplane to take the aerials,” Laney recalled of his now 90-year-old father. “He was gutsy. I couldn’t do that.”
Guests filled rows of chairs and a smattering of picnic tables amid the lawns and manicured gardens of the dam’s park — one of 14 that the utility has developed on more than 700 acres since the mid 1970s.
Paul Currit former real estate manager for the PUD, was in charge of acquiring the lands for many the parks. Today, PUD real estate is one of the duties overseen by his son, Steve Currit.
“At the time, it was a whole new concept,” Paul recalled Thursday.
His job also involved investigating suspected use violations on PUD land.
Like the time he was ordered to head to Manson Bay Park to see why so many people appeared to be camping there.
It turned out their were migrant workers who’d arrived too early for the harvest.
As he walked out along a rickety dock to look for the person in charge, he noticed they were all sunbathing — nude.
The “man” in charge was actually a woman, who was pulling her blouse on as she walked toward him.
“I learned a long time ago under those conditions, it’s eye to eye,” he said.
The official program included tribal dancers and drummers from the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and speeches from U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings and the tribes’ Joe Peone.
The setting summer sun played off the water churning white through the dam’s spill gates as a giant U.S. flag flapped boldly in a strong breeze.
PUD General Manager John Janney told the crowd he was optimistic that the tradition of publicly owned hydropower would be around for future generations.
“Billingsley” shared some wisdom.
“I urge you to look around at what we’ve accomplished,” he said. “And never, ever, ever take it for granted.”
Christine Pratt: 665-1173