A visit to a ghost town in San Francisco Bay

The course of time and tide

  • In Drawbridge, houses subside, slant and cave into San Francisco Bay.

    Nick Neely
  • The late afternoon lays down a carpet of light in an open-air hallway.

    Nick Neely
  • An Amtrak train runs past a salt pond with feeding American avocets.

    Nick Neely

At the southeast edge of San Francisco Bay lies a town on the threshold of disappearing. Its actual thresholds are already gone. In the evening light, the chaparral ridge above Fremont -- a Silicon Valley city of some 200,000 people a few miles away -- glows orange through pane-less windows just a foot above the ground. In one cabin, an old bed rests squarely on cracked mud. In another, the flooring is pristine, glossy: water tiled with sky.

At its peak in the 1920s, Drawbridge -- on Station Island in the marsh of the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge -- boasted more than 90 buildings on stilts, at least one with a grand piano. Today, it's a quieter place. Beyond the hum of a metropolis unimaginable in the town's heyday, the only sounds are the chitterings of marsh wrens, the occasional clack of an Amtrak train and, high overhead, the call of a red-and-yellow Southwest Airlines jet.

Drawbridge got its start when a couple of lesser-known robber barons decided to compete with Leland Stanford's Central Pacific Railroad by connecting Newark, in the East Bay, to Santa Cruz, on the coast. Their line would span two sloughs on either side of Station Island. To keep the channels open to shipping, they installed two drawbridges and hired George Mundershietz to elevate them. His was the first address in Drawbridge, named with a sign in 1887. Before long, Mundershietz was hosting friends in his cabin, and then, for 50 cents a night, adventurous strangers.

Soon other cabins, hotels and gun clubs rose in the pickleweed and salt grass. Drawbridge became a real town, so much so that the north and south ends, Protestant and Catholic, started to chafe. On weekends, up to 1,000 visitors in suits came to hunt waterfowl and have a little fun. Rumor has it that one hotel boasted a wheel of fortune inscribed with the names of call girls. More likely, it was for gambling ducks -- you either earned a dollar, or your cinnamon teal became dinner.

By the '40s, however, Station Island began to subside as the wells and diversions of San Jose drew down the water table. The burgeoning city dumped sewage into Drawbridge's sloughs, while much of the marsh -- and parts of Station Island -- were excavated for commercial salt-evaporation ponds, inhibiting the tides and taking a toll on waterfowl, the town's main draw. The last human inhabitants left in 1979.

Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the ghost town, has decided to let the tides run their course. Station Island's ponds were breached as part of the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project. The West's largest wetland restoration project, it was launched in 2003 when more than 15,000 acres were bought from a modern robber baron of sorts: food conglomerate Cargill Inc.

There will be no restoration for Drawbridge, though, which is off-limits to the public. In the tall grass, the town's broken roofs sag like swaybacked horses out to pasture. Endangered San Joaquin kit foxes emerge from culverts, and burrowing owls glide beneath power lines. In every direction, commercial parks shimmer like mirages. Across the Bay, the monstrous hangar of NASA's Moffett Field -- one of the world's largest freestanding structures -- presides. But from this small ghost town, one senses acutely that it was all made to disappear. And that it will be as easy, in the end, as lowering a bridge.

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