The Journey of Craig Eisenhower and the Legacy of Foster Joseph Sayers Dam

In Pennsylvania’s picturesque landscapes, where the Foster Joseph Sayers Dam stands as a symbol of human ingenuity and natural beauty, Craig Eisenhower, head dam operator, tells how his more than three-decade journey with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers unfolds.

 

Where It All Began

Eisenhower’s path to this pivotal role was shaped by a unique blend of personal connections and a crucial moment of opportunity. Reflecting on the beginning of his journey, Eisenhower, through a serendipitous conversation with Bert Smith, the first Head Dam Operator of Sayers Dam, shares how his USACE tenure came to be.

“I got to know Bert through my childhood best friend, who was dating his daughter,” Eisenhower said. “One Saturday evening in May 1992, we played cards at Bert’s cabin… I asked him to put the [job] feelers out there… He responded, ‘I didn’t know you were looking for another job; I have a maintenance worker position at Sayers Dam right now’…”

Craig Eisenhower, head dam operator, works with a colleague to replace a tractor radiator outside the maintenance building in 1992 at Foster Joseph Sayers Dam in Howard, Pa. After more than 30 years, Eisenhower continues his service to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. COURTESY PHOTO

That Monday morning, Eisenhower said he went to Smith’s office to fill out a job application. Within one month, he was offered a six-month temporary position that lasted four years before becoming a permanent employee as an assistant dam operator in 1996. Eight years later, Eisenhower was promoted to head dam operator, taking the reins at Sayers Dam.

 

Hometown Service

Eisenhower’s ties to the Sayers Dam community extend beyond the profession, deeply rooted in his upbringing.

“I grew up in Mill Hall, Pa., about seven miles from Sayers Dam,” said Eisenhower.

He graduated from Bald Eagle Nittany High School in 1978 and spent time on the wrestling team. He also played little league baseball and softball for community teams.

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Eisenhower was a big outdoors adventurist in his younger years but also had a passion for off-road motorcycles. Since he got his first dirt bike at 5 years old, his interest in motorcycles only grew. He even worked as a motorcycle mechanic at a local shop before joining USACE.

After returning home in 1983 from serving about five years in the U.S. Coast Guard, Eisenhower stayed close to his roots back in Mill Hall to care for his disabled brother.

“Once back in my hometown with family and friends, I had no desire to leave the area again.”

 

A Different Kind of Service

The transition from uniformed to civilian service with USACE was seamless for Eisenhower, thanks to the professional skills and values instilled in him during his time in the Coast Guard.

“The experience I had and the training I received as a machinery technician while serving in the Coast Guard contributed to me being qualified for the maintenance worker position,” Eisenhower said.

Craig Eisenhower, head dam operator, tells how his more than three-decade journey with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers unfolds Sep. 23, 2023 at Foster Joseph Sayers Dam in Howard, Pa. PHOTO BY DAVID J. ADAMS

The specialized skillsets and veteran status played a significant role in setting the path at the beginning of Eisenhower’s journey within USACE.

 

Safeguarding the Community

Eisenhower navigated significant weather-related challenges throughout his tenure, from devastating blizzards dropping several feet of snow in the early 90s to hurricane-induced floods. However, early 2018 stood out to him as a time when the dam’s critical role in flood risk management was put to the test.

“January and February were unseasonably warm [that year], so any precipitation that fell was rain,” said Eisenhower. “By mid to late summer, we had already exceeded the annual average rainfall of 32 inches.”

The head dam operator reflected on how saturated the ground was and rivers and creeks all running higher than usual. Tropical Storm Gordon and Hurricane Florence hit during hurricane season, bringing catastrophic rain to the area.

“Tropical Storm Gordon hit hard Sept. 10 and 11, leaving behind almost five inches of rain,” Eisenhower said. “With the reservoir already two feet higher than usual, the additional rainfall brought the lake level to nine feet below spillway flow. The forecast had Hurricane Florence to hit shortly after Gordon. That week, we evacuated four and a half feet of storage from the reservoir.”

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Eisenhower, concerned about the forecasted three-to-four inches of rainfall from Hurricane Florence, anticipated spillway flow. Spillways are used to control the release of water during flooding. Fortunately, Florence dropped only about an inch and a half of rain; however, it still took several weeks for the dam operators to bring the reservoir back to normal conservation pool levels and operations.

The proactive measures the dam operators took during these crises highlighted the importance of its operational efficiency and impact on the community’s safety.

 

Honoring a Local Hero

At the heart of Eisenhower’s connection to the dam is its namesake, U.S. Army Private 1st Class Foster Joseph Sayers, Howard, Pa. native, a machine gunner, and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient who died Nov. 12, 1944, during combat in World War II.

“Sayers lost his life fighting for his country and died a hero… As a Veteran, it makes me proud to operate and maintain a facility named after that young man,” Eisenhower said.

Eisenhower emphasized the dam’s primary purpose and connection to Sayers, reducing flood damage and potentially saving lives and property during disasters.

 

The Dam’s Legacy of Leadership

Mentorship played a significant role in Eisenhower’s career, with figures like Bill Welsh and Vernon Gunsallus, former dam operators, guiding him through the complexities of dam operations.

Craig Eisenhower, head dam operator, tells how his more than three-decade journey with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers unfolds Sep. 23, 2023 at Foster Joseph Sayers Dam in Howard, Pa. PHOTO BY DAVID J. ADAMS

“Each of them being unique in transferring their knowledge was sometimes stressful and overwhelming, but it paid off in the end,” said Eisenhower. “They had faith in and trusted me, and I knew I couldn’t let them down. I credit my success to those two gentlemen. Thank you, Bill and Vern.”

Today, Eisenhower continues his service to USACE and his hometown by keeping the dam in good working order and ready to respond when crises arise. He also engages with local community leaders and supporters interested in the success of Sayers Dam.

 

About Foster Joseph Sayers Dam:

Sayers Dam, standing 100 feet high and extending 1.3 miles long, creates the Foster Joseph Sayers Reservoir within Bald Eagle State Park. Completed in 1969, this 1,730-acre lake honors Private 1st Class Foster Joseph Sayers, a U.S. Army machine gunner and World War II Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, serving as a hub for water-based recreation. Located on Route 150 in Centre County, Pennsylvania, on Bald Eagle Creek, the dam is situated approximately 1 mile upstream from Blanchard and 14 miles from Lock Haven, contributing significantly to the West Branch Susquehanna River Basin’s flood control measures as part of a plan authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1954.

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The surrounding recreation facilities, including a beach, marina, picnic areas, boat launches, and camping sites, are managed by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), which leases 5,900 acres for public enjoyment. Additionally, Howard Borough maintains a five-acre community park under a tri-party agreement with the Commonwealth and the federal government, ensuring sanitary facilities for visitors. Offering year-round recreational activities, the marina operates until October 31 annually; boat launches are available until mid-February, weather permitting; campgrounds remain open through the hunting season until mid-December, and winter sports activities are accessible to the public.