Archives » May 17th, 2005

May 17, 2005

In the Shadow of Auburn Dam

As I wrote earlier, this weekend we drove over the Sierra Crest so Viola could take her EIPA test. She thinks she did pretty well, but we won’t get the results for 60 to 90 days, so we’ll just have to sit tight on that one.

But the test itself was nearly three hours long, so while she was sitting in a stuffy room at Del Oro High School in Loomis, I had to find some way to kill some time with the kids. And since Loomis is one of those one-stoplight towns that holds nothing of interest for outsiders, I instead drove up the hill to Auburn. Auburn is one of the old gold-rush towns, but it has managed to survive through the years, mostly thanks to Interstate 80 carrying thousands of travellers through it every day. Right on the outskirts of town is the American River Canyon, and if you leave the freeway and take Highway 49 south, you soon end up right at the bottom.

The American River Canyon. The close bridge is Old Foresthill Road, and the bridge further in the background is the “No Hands” Bridge. The Highway 49 bridge is hidden behind the hill.

When you get to the bottom of the canyon, you find yourself at the point where the North and Middle forks of the American River merge. Highway 49 crosses the river here and climbs up the other side of the canyon on its way to Placerville, while the old road to Foresthill splits off, also crosses the river, and follows it for a while longer. The canyon’s easy accessibility and proximity to towns and the freeway make it popular with whitewater rafters, horseback riders, hikers, and cyclists. It’s also home to a bit of history; the “No Hands” Bridge was built in 1912 for the Mountain Quarries Railroad. It was the longest concrete arch bridge in the world when it was built, and it has withstood several floods that have washed more modern bridges away.

And if the State of California had had its way 30 years ago, all of this would be underwater today.

Postcard from an alternate universe where the Auburn Dam was actually built.

For you see, this canyon was supposed to be the home of the Auburn Dam. Conceived during the heyday of California’s Central Valley Project, which sought to control the water situation in the middle of the state, this was going to be a companion to the Folsom Dam which had been built in 1955. Together these two reserviors would put an end to the flooding that had plagued Sacramento ever since the first Americans settled there over a hundred years before. Construction actually started on the dam, with the river being diverted into a spillway tunnel and heavy equipment ripping huge scars into the canyon walls. But then, in 1975, there was an earthquake at Oroville Dam, 60 miles away. Analysis soon showed that the same faultline ran right by the Auburn Dam site, and that the Oroville quake could have been caused by the weight of the water in the reservoir. Construction at Auburn halted while the engineers figured out what to do with this new data, and as months turned into years the American attitude towards dam building slowly changed. Gone were the days of damming every canyon the government could get their hands on, replaced by a more thoughtful approach to flood control. New economic analysis was also done on the Auburn Dam, and by the time the dam had been redesigned to be structurally sound in an earthquake, it no longer looked financially sound. There just wasn’t enough water in the American River for the dam to make a profit through generating electricity.

Highway 49 crossing the swirling waters of the American River.

And so the Auburn Dam drifted through the decades, a mostly dead project. A few people, most notably US Representative John T. Doolittle, clung to the idea that the dam could, and should, still be built, but the government didn’t agree. Now it’s pretty much a given that it will never happen. But the project did leave behind a couple of interesting remnants. One is the dam site itself, where huge scars still stretch up the side of the canyon. I didn’t visit there. But I did visit the new Foresthill Bridge, which was built in 1973 to replace the old bridges that would soon be underwater.

New Foresthill Bridge towers over Old Foresthill Bridge.

Because the canyon was so steep, and Auburn Lake was going to be so deep, Foresthill Bridge had to be quite an impressive structure. It was designed to sit 130 feet above the waters of Auburn Lake. But the lake itself was going to be 600 feet deep at that point, so they had to built the bridge a dizzying 730 feet off the ground. This gave it a distinction it was never meant to keep: the highest bridge in California, and third-highest in the U.S. After the dam project fell through, what was supposed to be a very ordinary structure has turned into a tourist attraction of its own.

Foresthill Bridge. The waters of Auburn Lake were supposed to completely cover the concrete pillars, leaving only the green truss visible.

Sadly, Mr. Ed won’t be able to join you.

A bridge like this not only attracts tourists, of course, but also those looking to take advantage of high places. Specifically, it’s a favorite with jumpers. And it’s easy to see why. You always want your final statement to be a profound one; you want to go out in style. And for the ultimate in style points, your obvious first choice is the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s a classic. But the problem with the Golden Gate is that it has a survival rate. It’s small, sure, but it’s still there. It’s only 220 feet high, after all, and you have a whole ocean to cushion your fall. So if you want to get the job done, really get it done well, you should automatically head to the highest bridge you can find. When you fall 730 feet, it doesn’t really matter what you land on. But the Foresthill Bridge is accomodating in that respect too. The American River is a thin little thing, and even if you somehow manage to aim just right and hit it, it can’t be more than ten feet deep. So you know when you step off that railing and start your final journey, you’re not going to be ending up in a hospital room somewhere. It’s such an attractive spot that they’ve installed suicide prevention callboxes at either end of the bridge.

I wonder if you can order pizza?

If you want to learn more about the American River Canyon, I’d recommend the book Nature Noir by Jordan Fisher Smith. I’ve never read it myself, but it got several good reviews, so that’s enough for me. It’s written by a former park ranger that worked in the canyon for 14 years, and his stories about the people of Gold Country. And hanging over the whole book is the shadow of Auburn Dam, this looming threat that was always present in the canyon even though it never got built.

To close out, here are a few more pictures from the bottom.

The sign reminds you that it’s a wild river with a history of flooding.

Looking at the confluence of the North and Middle forks of the American River. In the background is the Highway 49 bridge.

Old and new Foresthill Bridges, two roads going to the same place.