PORT ANGELES — It was a morning to rejoice in a desire that would not die, a day to bathe in a shared victory.
Saturday’s ceremony marking the start of removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams — the largest effort of its kind in U.S. history — had splashes of laughter too, with a few unexpected turns.
It was a brightly sun-lit two hours of unity: the people of Port Angeles, the West and the country got together beside the Elwha River.
And like a chorus singing Mother Nature’s praises, they repeated a refrain: As the river runs free, a new day dawns.
Stepping forward to pay tribute to his Klallam forebears who advocated dam removal decades ago, Ben Charles Sr. looked at the shimmering Elwha, then at the light veil of clouds overhead.
Speaking to the 400 invited guests at the Elwha Dam, as well as those watching the simulcast on City Pier in Port Angeles, Charles recalled his grandparents and great-grandparents who envisioned this day.
“We are compassed about with a great cloud of witnesses,” he said, quoting Hebrews 12:1.
When the river was obstructed — first with the 108-foot Elwha Dam in 1913 and again with the 210-foot Glines Canyon Dam in 1927 — the Klallam people lost much sacred ground, including the Creation Site inundated by Lake Aldwell, along with the salmon blocked from swimming upriver.
“So many times, we weep. We pray. We weep some more . . . so many times we think, ‘What’s the use?’” Charles remembered.
But with the restoration of the river, “prayers are answered.”
Then, from federal officials, Lower Elwha tribal leaders and Gov. Chris Gregoire came the rest of the rare story.
“What a day,” began Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, which is overseeing the three-year dam removal project.
He saluted the resilience of the Lower Elwha elders, saying that for more than 20 years and the 14 congressional appropriations cycles so far, the people of this region persisted, along with the tribe.
Ultimately, the Elwha River restoration project’s price tag grew to $325 million and the expected completion date to September 2014, more than a century after the Elwha Dam was erected.
“This has been a Peninsula in transition for a long time,” Jarvis said.
“I believe [the restoration] will be the source of a new economy,” largely based on recreation.
Addressing the young people who partook in the ceremony — the Elwha Dance Group and the Port Angeles High School chamber orchestra and jazz ensemble — Jarvis highlighted what he sees as the lesson: “With persistence and dedication and focus on an idea . . . amazing things can happen.”
Larry Echo Hawk, assistant secretary of Indian Affairs, added more context.
The Lower Elwha Klallam tribe signed a treaty in 1855, he said, in which the U.S. government said the tribe’s way of life would be respected.
“Although the U.S. Constitution says treaties are the law of the land, the Lower Elwha saw only injustice,” said Echo Hawk, who is the former attorney general of Idaho.
“Today is a day of healing,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Mountlake Terrace, hailed the Elwha project as a catalyst for salmon recovery as well as economic recovery.
“We are here for a better future,” she said.
Cantwell’s colleague, Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray of Bothell, noted that the Lower Elwha tribe and other residents of Port Angeles and the Pacific Northwest worked together toward this common goal.
The dams’ removal “will be remembered for the community partnership . . . and the power of a community coming together,” Murray said.
Rep. Norm Dicks, a Democrat from Belfair first elected to Congress in 1976 who’s long served on the House Appropriations Committee, has also labored for this day.
“This, by far, has been the longest struggle,” Dicks said of the dam demolition.
Toward the end of Saturday’s speeches came three key dignitaries, plus a fourth who was not on the schedule.
First in the final three was Frances Charles, chairwoman of the Lower Elwha tribe.
“I want to ask our tribal community members, our veterans and our youth to stand up,” she began. “This event . . . is something our children will never forget.”
Then Frances Charles brought everyone else to their feet with: “Billy Frank, would you please come to the podium?”
Frank, a nimble 80, is a crucial figure in Pacific Northwest history.
From the 1960s forward, he led the fight for Native American fishing rights and for river restoration.
The recipient of international humanitarian awards, he also has served as chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission for much of the past three decades.
Freeing the Elwha “is what it’s all about,” Frank told the crowd.
“When you say the Elwha people are strong, you’re damn right they’re strong.”
That was unusually “good behavior” for Frank, said the next speaker, Gregoire.
His speech, shorter than she’s ever heard, made this “a historic moment.”
After a wave of laughter in the crowd, Gregoire went on to say that the restored river, with its fishing, whitewater and surrounding splendor, may well be “a great boost to the economy of our whole state.
“I can only imagine the tourism.”
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, the last federal official to speak, heaped a different kind of praise on this part of the country.
“If only the rest of the world could be like Washington,” Salazar said, noting that the state has two female U.S. senators and a female governor.
“We could solve all of the issues, including war and peace.”
As the audience applauded, Salazar asked Gregoire, Cantwell, Murray and Frances Charles to stand.
At 1:10 p.m. Saturday, Olympic National Park Superintendent Karen Gustin invited the crowd to take part in something else not on the event program.
From an overlook above the Elwha Dam, she urged them to shout one last cheer as an excavator, its bucket spray-painted gold, broke up a piece of concrete just upstream of the dam and carried some pieces to the bank where dignitaries were waiting.
With the Elwha Valley stretching out behind them, the group belted out: “Let dam removal begin!”
Features Editor Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3550 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.