President John F. Kennedy made a profound statement Sept. 27, 1963, when he pressed a switch that opened the penstocks at Flaming Gorge Dam and started a system that has produced hydroelectric power for six decades.
“The important thing to remember is for 50 years men have been talking about this project,” Kennedy said. “It is now a reality. What are we going to do now so that 50 years from now the people who live in Utah and the United States will feel that in the early ’60s we made the proper decision for the management of our resources?”
An Important Question
Dave Mead, executive director of the Sweetwater County Historical Museum, said when people view a new exhibit on Flaming Gorge, he hopes they ponder the same question.
“Was it worth it?” Mead asked. “We lost a beautiful, wild river but we gained a pretty lake and a big tourism boost for the local economy. Water is the key. Kennedy said that, and it’s profound. One of my goals for this exhibit is to get people to think about this question.”
The museum’s new display is in the Sweetwater County Courthouse and it includes a twist, and another chapter of this story. A significant part of the exhibit is dedicated to a whitewater exploration business owned by A.K and Ellen Reynolds of Green River.
A History Exhibit With A Twist
A.K. Reynolds, who died in 2005, is the son of Adrian Reynolds, former publisher of the Green River Star and one of the founders of the Sweetwater County Historical Society.
A.K. was a supporter of the Flaming Gorge project, but his rafting business was lost when the reservoir filled. Reynolds bought Green Lakes Resort in 1954. It was lost in a fire 1957, then later rebuilt and named Red Canyon Lodge.
The Reynolds’ business changed at that time. They no longer hosted river trips but owned and operated the Red Canyon Lodge until 1986.
The centerpiece of the display is one of the boats, called a cataract boat, that was found in a shed in Utah and partially restored. It’s a plywood dory painted white with red trim. It has oak chines and gunwhales, and is flat-bottomed with upswept ends similar to the skiffs and drift boats commonly seen carrying fly fishermen down dozens of Wyoming rivers.
However, its decks are covered to prevent water from filling the boat. There are doors in the decks to access storage compartments that were used for carrying camping gear. Part of the display is a video presentation that includes specifics about the business and cataract boats running the churning whitewater of the Green River prior to construction of the dam at Flaming Gorge.
A 1953 letter advertising river trips hosted by Reynolds states: “You will never know the thrilling satisfaction of river running til you have spent three days in Red Canyon, a week in Lodore, or two weeks on the trip through all the upper canyons of the Green between this city and Dinosaur National Monument near Jensen, Utah.”
The boat is on loan from the Uintah County Heritage Museum in Vernal, Utah. That museum also provided dozens of black-and-white digital images that were reproduced by the Sweetwater County Historical Museum staff.
Flaming Gorge – The Presidential Connection
One of the images was made into a life-sized cutout of President Kennedy. He’s wearing the classic suit of the time with narrow lapels, tailored waist and a dark, thin tie. A video shows Kennedy speaking in Salt Lake City and activating the Flaming Gorge turbines.
But the presidential connection with Flaming Gorge goes back to 1956, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower made a telephone call to a man overlooking the dam site.
On the president’s command the man fired a rifle that signaled workers at the dam site to set off the first explosion that began construction on the dam. A photo of President Eisenhower smiling with his Secretary of the Interior Fred A. Seaton as they trigger the explosion are part of the exhibit.
President Eisenhower also initiated construction of the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River in northern Arizona that same day. Glen Canyon Dam construction was completed in 1966.
Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on Nov. 22, 1963, about two months after he initiated power production at Flaming Gorge. Lady Bird Johnson, wife of Kennedy’s successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, dedicated the visitor center at Flaming Gorge Dam on Aug. 17, 1964.
“President Kennedy said those profound words 60 years ago,” said Mead. “And now we are having huge fights over water. Did we do the right thing back then? That’s the gist of all this for me and I hope people get that when they visit.”