LEWISTON – They held another 50th-anniversary party of sorts at the Niagara Hydroelectric Power Station on Monday morning, and the honorees were about two dozen retired folks who are well north of their 50th birthdays.
They’re called the Hard Hats of Niagara, a crew of former construction workers who helped build the power plant and the Power Vista from the late 1950s to the early ’60s.
These are mostly guys in their 70s and 80s now. A few can’t hear much, and their hair, what’s left of it, is mostly gray or white. But they proudly wore their Hard Hats of Niagara baseball caps.
And they’re immensely proud of what they accomplished, many of them taking every chance to revisit their legacy that will last long after they pass from the scene.
Ken Glennon is the group spokesman, and he has even written a book called “Hard Hats of Niagara.” At age 71, the South Bend, Ind., resident still marvels at the work ethic of his fellow construction workers, whose identities were formed in families that had lived through earlier harrowing times in the 20th century.
What was different about that generation?
“Their work ethic, their ability to think outside the box and their genuine appreciation of doing a good job,” Glennon said.
“These guys were forged by the Great Depression and World War II,” he said of the workers and their families. “Those events galvanized and unified them toward a national goal – to survive the Depression and defeat the Axis powers in World War II. The younger generation today doesn’t have that advantage.”
The Hard Hats were recognized at a brief – and slightly belated – ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the July 16, 1963, opening of the Power Vista. The ceremony also was timed to coincide with the approximately 7 millionth visitor to the free educational destination.
Construction of the power plant and Power Vista lasted from 1958 to 1963, but the first power was generated there in 1961.
“These guys have been so engaged, so thrilled, to keep coming back for all these reunions,” said Lou Paonessa, community affairs director for the New York Power Authority. “They’re like a brotherhood.
“They accomplished something that could never be done today. They built the power plant in three years, from first dig to first power.”
The whole project cost about $700 million to build, in early 1960s dollars. What would the price tag be now?
“Thirteen gazillion dollars, I think,” Glennon replied, or surely more than $5 billion.
Hard Hats members were asked why they keep coming back to these anniversary events.
“A lot of it has to do with camaraderie,” said Charles Cowart, 79, a former laborer who lives on Grand Island. “A lot of the guys I knew and grew up with, and we still get together for events associated with the Hard Hats.”
Like the others, Cowart remains so proud to have been part of the massive undertaking.
“This venture will live on forever,” he added.
Bob Adner, 83, a former dynamite blaster now living in the Town of Tonawanda, grabbed some people’s attention Monday by quipping that he has lost his hearing – but not his good looks.
“Can it really be 50 years?” he asked. “It doesn’t seem that long. I must be getting old.”
Adner, who also helped build the St. Lawrence Seaway, remembers the time when he went across the country with his wife, Marilyn, in the 1990s and flashed his own bias while visiting Hoover Dam:
“I said to the guide, ‘Boy, this is small.’ He didn’t think too much of my comment.”
Lysle Newberry, 88, a former cement crew laborer who lives in the Town of Lewiston, also has displayed his pride about his role:
“When I drive by with someone, a visitor, I say I worked on this project, I helped build it, I met good people, and I enjoyed it.”
Much of the fanfare Monday was directed at the Power Vista’s 7 millionth visitor. The Power Authority determined that the milestone would be reached this fall, targeting Oct. 28 as the approximate date.
Shortly before 11:30 a.m., the 7 millionth visitor appeared in the form of Zach Yates, 19, of Gasport, a sophomore at nearby Niagara University who came with two friends.
“We just kind of wanted to kill some time between classes, and we wanted to take a look at the gorge,” Yates said.
After receiving a bag of goodies marking his visit, Yates met some of the Hard Hats, and he clearly got a kick out of hearing their story. “It’s cool that they have such pride in what they did,” Yates said.
Two elected officials also got into the act Monday. Assemblyman John D. Ceretto, R-Lewiston, while acknowledging the Hard Hats’ contributions, also paid tribute to “those who couldn’t make it, those who passed away.”
And State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, referring to the educational nature of the Power Vista, with its free hands-on tours, sounded thrilled that the 7 millionth visitor was a student – and from Niagara University no less.
Maziarz said, “That’s exactly what the purpose was in building this place 50 years ago.”