While re-reading John McPhee’s excellent book Assembling California last month for the San Andreas Fault National Park studio, I was struck once again by a short description of a Californian landscape partially redesigned in preparation for a reservoir that never arrived.
McPhee is referring to the Auburn Dam, in the city of Auburn, northeast of Sacramento (and near a small town called, of all things, Cool, California). The $1 billion Auburn Dam would have been “the largest concrete arched dam in the world,” according to Geoengineer.org, but construction was abandoned over fears that seismic activity might cause the dam to collapse, inundating Sacramento.
Construction was begun, however, and its cessation produced some rather unassuming ruins—basically large piles of exposed gravel and rock now eroding in springtime floods.
Nonetheless, these mounds were not cheap, including “$327 million concrete abutments [that] stand in stark contrast to the rest of the oak-filled canyon,” as the Auburn-Cool Trail site (or ACT) explains. “The washout of the 250-foot coffer dam in 1986 left huge scars that continue to erode, with large broken pipes sticking out in a precarious manner. Hasty roadbuilding for the project has contributed to landslides that have caused sedimentation and increased turbidity in the river downstream and in Folsom Lake. The cost of seasonal repairs on the service roads alone has run into the millions of dollars, and many roads remain cracked and unsafe.”
Amazingly, though, and this is where we come to John McPhee, regional infrastructure was constructed with an eye on what the landscape would look like in the future, given the presence of the Auburn Dam, leading to surreal sights like the Foresthill Bridge.
The bridge, which you can still drive on today, is a towering structure remarkably out of proportion with the landscape, its unnecessary height all but incomprehensible until you imagine the cold waters of the American River rising up behind the Auburn Dam, forming a recreational lake and reservoir, the lights of the bridge reflected at night in the waters below. “Not particularly long,” McPhee quips, “the bridge was built so high in order to clear the lake that wasn’t there.”
Weirdest of all, McPhee writes, there were boat docks built high up on the surrounding hillsides, waiting for their lake.
One gravel boat ramp, he explains, “several hundred yards long, descends a steep slope and ends high and nowhere, a dangling cul-de-sac. The skeletons [a skeleton crew of federal workers stationed at the former dam site] call it ‘the largest and highest unused boat ramp in California.’ Houses that cling to the canyon sides look into the empty pit. They were built around the future lakeshore under the promise of rising water. You can almost see their boat docks projecting into the air. Thirty-three hundred quarter-acre lots were platted in a subdivision called Auburn Lake Trails.”
While I will confess that, while using the omniscient eye of Google Maps, I can’t find these gravel boat ramps leading down to the rim of a lake that doesn’t exist—looking in vain for a maze of quasi-lakeside home lots perched uselessly in the hills—I assume that it’s either because the ramps have long since revegetated, given the two decades that have passed since the publication of McPhee’s book, or perhaps because there was a certain amount of willful projection on McPhee’s part in the first place.
After all, the idea of a line of homes built far up in the hills somewhere, overlooking an empty space in which a lake should be, is so beautiful, and so perfectly odd, that it would be tempting to conjure it into being, imagining bored kids in a town called Cool riding their bikes down to lost docks in the woods each summer near sunset, climbing over maritime ruins slowly crumbling in the mountains, throwing rocks at rotting lifejackets, building small forts inside the discarded hulls of someone else’s midlife crisis, perhaps still waiting, even hoping, for a flood to come.