William Mulholland was a ditch digger turned emperor, an Irish immigrant who presided over the transformation of Los Angeles from a dusty backwater settlement to the tail that wags the golden bear. Monterey Bay had been the first port of major import in California, and its namesake city was its first capital. San Francisco and Sacramento grew up as a result of the Gold Rush; the former was a debarkation point for the gold fields of the western Sierra, and the latter—at the crotch of the gold-bearing American River and the bay-connected Sacramento—thrived first on the comings and goings of those bound for golden glory, then as the state capital, profiting from the goings-on of governing what became the most populous state in the union. Los Angeles, though? Everybody knew that was nowhere.
The semi-arid strip trapped between the Transverse Ranges and the Pacific was barely livable, with only the Los Angeles River to keep its thirst slaked. Its harbor, now one of the primary economic engines of California, was too shallow for any serious shipping without dredging. Because of its lack of habitable area owing to a paucity of fresh water, the City of Angels seemed to be doomed to its status as a town of little consequence. As the chief engineer of the Bureau of Water Works and Supply, Mulholland, with the aid of some of L.A.’s most prominent men, cajoled, connived, and some would say outright stole the water rights from farmers up in the Owens Valley, a remote area of agricultural land sandwiched between the majestic Eastern Sierra and the Inyo Mountains. In 1928, after having paved the way for a modern metropolis that dictates much of the way America thinks, eats, shops, listens, and views the West Coast, Mulholland’s seemingly unstoppable rise came to a shattering halt up on San Francisquito Creek.
In the Los Angeles that Mulholland irrigated, a mid-century Eden built on the back of bustling aerospace, entertainment, and petroleum industries, Johnny von Neumann, an Austrian émigré, began selling Ferry Porsche’s little Volkswagen-based sports cars via his Competition Motors shop. Porsche has often regarded California as its most important market in the world, and von Neumann’s shop was the beachhead from which that market sprang. East Coast importer Max Hoffman’s idea for a stripped-down, open 356 found a home here, and there are few cars more emblematic of the Golden State’s salad days as the world’s automotive epicenter than the beloved Speedster.
The area’s affluence, scenery, and obsession with the automobile all came together with the weather, which encouraged year-round cruises to the beach or blasts through the area’s numerous canyons. If Porsche’s literal home lies on the Swabian autobahn, Southern California played nearly as important a role in its development, standing as a finishing school with laureates including everything from the 356 to the Cayenne to the car I hustled up San Francisquito Canyon, a Miami Blue 2017 911 Turbo S.
Conceived to homologate the 934 and 935 race cars for FIA groups 4 and 5 during the 1970s, Porsche’s original Turbo was venerated for its astonishing performance during an era when there wasn’t much performance to be had. It was also derided as a tricky-to-drive widowmaker. With the GT2 and GT3 models taking over as the hirsute, race-bred monsters of the line in the 1990s, the Turbo has gradually become a more friendly car, even as its performance numbers push into the rarefied air of all but the most exalted supercars. It’s a car as safe as milk for a Hollywood producer buried deep in his iPhone, yet ostentatious enough to let the masses know he spent plenty of money.
Some 35 miles northeast of Hollywood, in the mountains south of the dry Antelope Valley, the Santa Clara River rises up at the eastern edge of the Angeles National Forest. Just before little Acton, the Santa Clara is joined by the Aliso Canyon fork, and west of the town, the tributaries roll in one after another, feeding the river as it flows west toward Ventura. Mulholland had his eye on one tributary in particular: San Francisquito Creek. Designed to hold Owens Valley water from the Los Angeles Aqueduct in reserve, as well as to generate power for the city to its southwest, the Saint Francis Dam was a 205-foot-high edifice holding back 38,168 acre-feet of water, a thumb in the eye of an ecosystem seemingly bent on thwarting mass human habitation of the L.A. basin. With its western side built atop an old landslide, the detection of which was beyond the scope of 1920s equipment, the dam stood for only two years.
Compared with Shasta, Oroville, Folsom, New Melones, Friant, and Trinity—major California dams that followed it during the golden age of Western dam building—Saint Francis held back a relatively small volume of water. In contrast, Northern California’s Shasta Dam impounds 4,552,000 acre-feet of Sacramento River water, creating the largest reservoir in the state. If drained, Lake Shasta could cover an area the size of Connecticut with more than a foot of water. In comparison, the capacity of Saint Francis Reservoir would have about the same effect on an area comparable to San Francisco. Still, as its residents will proudly tell you, San Francisco ain’t exactly nothin’, and when unleashed at three minutes to midnight on March 12, 1928, Saint Francis’s 12-billion-odd gallons carved a devastating path to the sea.
Crews and area residents had been concerned with leaks along the structure’s western abutment, prompting Mulholland himself to come out for an inspection on the day of the collapse. While the old ditch tender judged that that section of the dam would require further work, he declared the dam safe. Within 24 hours, the Owens River water held at San Francisquito Creek would reach the Pacific at Ventura, more than 50 miles away.
On some heavenly plane, the simple friar from Assisi surely wept as the dam that bore his name gave way, given the cost in human lives. It’s not known exactly how many people perished in the disaster, but estimates place the death toll between 400 and 600. As a man of nature, however, Saint Francis would appreciate the area of the dam site as it stands today. For years, San Francisquito Canyon Road ran right alongside the location of the mammoth structure’s collapse. In 2005, torrential rains washed out that section of the rural highway, leading authorities to establish a new right of way less prone to the ill effects of elemental whim. The old section is unceremoniously blocked off with a couple of Jersey barriers, with no sign to mark the significance of what lies beyond.
Hop over them, amble down, and marvel at the work that 12 short years of human noninterference can do. In places, the two-lane blacktop isn’t even visible. Thickets of desert scrub have grown up around and through the pavement; a layer of silty soil has washed over it. In other spots, teenagers with aerosol cans and shotguns have left their marks on signs and asphalt. You have to know you’re looking to find remnants of the dam off to your left, and even then, it’s a guessing game without having viewed recently annotated photographs. The “tombstone” section of the dam, the portion left standing upright until it was dynamited in 1929, is well into its return to the soil. Toothlike concrete protrusions from its edge are the only clue that man was somehow involved in this reshaping of the landscape.
After a hike back up the decommissioned stretch of road to the car, back down San Francisquito Canyon the Porsche and I went, eyeing the canyon walls for evidence of the scouring that 12 and a half billion gallons of water gave it 89 years ago, back toward the Santa Clara River, into Santa Clarita, now a a bedroom metropole with a population of nearly 182,000—as big as Los Angeles itself was during the first decade of the 20th century. At a stoplight, a man in a sano lifted and besnorkeled Toyota Land Cruiser rolled down his window and said, “I like your ride.”
“Thanks, man. I like yours, too.”
“I’ve got one too, an ’09 Turbo.”
In 2009, you could still get a 911 Turbo with a manual transmission. A millennial Porschephile friend groused about the new Turbo S in dismissive internetese: “No manual, no care.” He drives a 912E, the bastard offspring of the ’70s G-model 911 and the four-cylinder 914 2.0. With the mid-engined 914 ending production and the 924 still a year out, the 912E—conceived as a stopgap for the 1976 model year—was too slow to live and too rare to die. Long scoffed at by 914 guys and 911 nerds alike, an E, like pretty much anything air-cooled these days, can now cost real money. It is, after all, the last Porsche to be produced with a pushrod valvetrain. A 912E with a 1970s slushbox in front of its engine sounds like an absolutely abysmal proposition, but in the Turbo S, the car is so completely ruled by technology that a third pedal would feel anachronistic. Porsche’s precise, lively psychic warrior of a dual-clutch box absolutely suits the character of the car.
If you want elemental, buy a classic, one where you feel the crack of the carburetor’s throat under the ball of your foot. Where the steering is an unboosted, kinetic delight. Where the whole thing is a contraption to be bent to your will, to be cajoled and manhandled into doing your bidding. If you want all that with a warranty, buy a motorcycle. The kind man at the Harley-Davidson store will happily sell you a brand-new air-cooled vehicle with a purposefully mechanical transmission, a chatty clutch, and the requirement of your utmost attention. Meanwhile, the Turbo S devoured San Francisquito Canyon Road with a speed and alacrity that would exhaust a young man on Aprilia’s techno-wizard RSV4 sport bike. In the Porsche, I did little but dart my eyes from entry to apex to exit to entry to apex to exit until the road ran out of entries, apexes, and exits.
Yet the fallacy inherent in writing off the Turbo S as a soulless confab of computer-whiz gimcrackery is that it communicates. You want to dismiss it out of hand as a car for Beverly Hills plastic surgeons too dumb to buy a high-winding GT3, but you’d do so at your own peril. The front end natters away when you need it to, not as isolated as the early Carreras of the 991 generation. Press the PDCC button, for Porsche Dynamic Chassis Control. Depress it. It doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of difference. Twist the knob on the steering wheel to Sport, and it just does everything a little more quickly, though not necessarily better. The Turbo S is as it is, an implacable 205-mph rocket sled with a narration track at the helm, and changing its drive mode seems to change its character not a whit.
On the other side of Castaic Junction, where State Route 126 branches off from Interstate 5, a valley filled with farms and dotted with small towns carries the Santa Clara toward the sea. Piru, Santa Paula, Fillmore, and Saticoy were all swept up in the disaster’s path, the canyon’s 120-foot wall of water having broadened into a menacing freshwater tide. State Route 126 cuts right down the floodplain, and the Porsche excelled here, too, without whimper or complaint when the going got trafficky. On the straight highway sections, it rolled along pleasantly, as any other car would, its 580 horsepower wholly irrelevant. There were no tramlining histrionics, no unhappy low end of the powerband, no balkiness from the high-performance transmission. The Turbo S is as well behaved as an Accord. It’s hard to reconcile its docile and forgiving nature with the old 930’s reputation as a killer—one that spawned lawsuits against Porsche in the 1980s—just as it’s hard to imagine the desolate, windblown Owens Valley as an agricultural paradise. Or San Francisquito Canyon filled with water behind a dam whose remnants are very nearly part of the natural landscape at this point.
Pressed for time, I didn’t exactly get to the mouth of the Santa Clara. I parked at the marina in Ventura for a moment, just north of the spot where the lifeless, formless jumble of rubble and bodies poured out into the Pacific. Music was playing. People were enjoying drinks as the evening summer sun hung low over the water. A light coastal mist lent the proceedings an ethereal, silver-gold glow. Indignation took over for a moment, and I thought to myself, “How can you guys party when almost 90 years ago, this place was littered with the dead, killed by the hand of a power-mad autodidact engineer bent on remaking the very fabric of this state?”
Of course, my rage was was a bit silly and impotent. Our culture, our infrastructure were built on the backs of the dead: men, women, and children who died in massacres or of disease brought across oceans. Men and women who died of old age in their beds. High steelworkers who fell to their doom. People killed in war and people killed by freak happenstance. To stave off death by starvation and thirst in inhospitable environs, they built aqueducts and planted acreage. To defend against death on the road, they added seatbelts and sensors and airbags, used materials more efficiently and effectively, and sent power to more wheels. When the money to be made and the glory to be earned is too good to resist, as it is in Los Angeles, as it is for Porsche, the resultant engineering astounds. And sometimes it kills. Humanity fumbles on, hoping that somehow, nobody ever actually disappears completely, optimistic that one day, science or faith will make that hope a reality.
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A week before I made my journey from the dam’s ruins to the sea, the United Kingdom announced that no new automobiles powered by internal combustion alone would be sold on its shores after 2040, which followed France’s announcement that they’d do away with petroleum-burning new cars within the same time frame. Surely, an announcement from Germany on the same topic is due within the next few years, and with Europe’s big players on board, as well as China’s heavy push toward electrification, it may be that 911 Turbo is well into late middle age as a nameplate. Or, given the Teutonic propensity toward unhinging model names from reality, perhaps they’ll just keep calling the most powerful, luxurious, all-wheel-drive electric 911s Turbos.
Below the dam site, the reaction turbines of old Powerhouse #2 are still spinning big generators, still churning out 46 megawatts of electricity courtesy of Owens Valley water. One of the first casualties of the dam’s collapse, the electrical plant was quickly rebuilt following the debacle. And as long as enough snow falls in the Sierra Nevada to keep water flowing through the aqueduct, the future 911s of Los Angeles, the city that made Porsche, will owe some of their electrons to the man who made the city itself possible.
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