Drawbridge: The Ghost town along the San Francisco Bay

The ghost town of Drawbridge

Throughout the west, there are several ghost towns that you can visit. Many of these old abandoned towns have been preserved in a state of “arrested decay.” Many have been simply left alone to the whims of Mother Nature. Some of them you have to drive for hours to reach along washboard bumpy, dirt roads. But one is situated literally in the heart of Silicon Valley.

I first went to the town of Drawbridge in 1976, the Bi-Centennial year of the founding of the United States of America. Although I have always been interested in history, I became even more fond of it during that time. And especially so with the history of Fremont, California, the city where I grew up. I went back in 2013 and had originally planned to do a photo essay in black and white of what Drawbridge looked like in 1976 versus how it looks in 2013. Sadly, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, with their lazy “hands-off” approach, let the town fall into a state where no amount of effort would bring it back. And so my idea of doing a “then versus now” story with side-by-side photos is no longer possible. I am thankful I had my old analog camera back then with black and white film.

The first part of this essay shows what Drawbridge looks like in 2013, and near the second half of this essay, what it looked like in 1976.

The town of Drawbridge was formerly called Saline City and is an abandoned ghost town that is situated along the south shoreline of the San Francisco Bay on Station Island. The city of Fremont, California claims the land and after years of neglect by all levels of government, from city, county, state and federal agencies, it is now part of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge. However, with a staff comprised mainly of volunteers, it is difficult to manage the site and it is illegal to visit without special permission.

The town is located along the “Coast Line” route of the Union Pacific Railroad, about 6 miles (10 km) south of the center of Fremont, and in between the town of Alviso. Listed as being at an elevation of 7 feet (2 m), it has been a ghost town since 1979 and is slowly sinking into the marshlands.

Back in 1896, the narrow-gauge South Pacific Coast Railroad built tracks along the south bay that ran over Station Island. In order to cross two rather significant creeks, Mud Slough and Coyote Creek, they built two drawbridges (really swing bridges) and one small cabin for the operator who would open and close the bridges for the substantial boat traffic that plied the waterways.

When completed this portion of the railroad connected the east bay with San Jose and the south bay. During its heyday, there would be 10 passenger trains stopping there each day, five that traveled north and five traveling south. Nowadays there are several trains that pass through Drawbridge, the ACE train and Amtrak as well as freight trains, but they no longer make a stop here. The only path leading into Drawbridge is a walk along the Union Pacific Railroad tracks which is not allowed and quite dangerous due to the numerous trains that run along this portion of the Coast Line railroad route.

In the 1880s, with the winding down of the California Gold Rush, hundreds of visitors would flock to the town on weekends. The island had its own aquifer and one telephone line. Although the town never had roads, by the 1920s it had 90 buildings and was actually divided into two separate communities. The southern end was predominantly Roman Catholic while the north end was predominantly Protestant. The “North Drawbridgers” were regarded as uppity and arrogant, while the “South Drawbridgers” were known as being a rather wild bunch.

In the late 1800s, San Francisco was growing and its inhabitants found themselves with free time and a desire to go on vacation. Even back then, the beautiful beaches of Santa Cruz were an attractive destination for fogged-in city dwellers — though it took a lot of effort to get there.

Two men saw all this money changing hands and thought they could build a good business catering to the vacationers.

“Slippery” Jim Fair was a politician and Alfred “Hog” Davis owned a meatpacking plant. Together they formed a railroad company called the South Pacific Coast Railroad. In several hours it could ferry San Franciscans to Alameda and then put them on a train down to Santa Cruz.

To make the trip shorter, they laid tracks across the mudflats and marshlands at the south end of the bay. At one section, the tracks cross the small Station Island which is less than a mile long. The island has two adjoining waterways, the Coyote Creek and the Warm Springs Slough, which both received heavy boat traffic.

By the 1920s, Drawbridge was known as a gaming town. During Prohibition, the town housed several speakeasies and brothels, taking advantage of its remote, out-of-the-way location. With San Francisco Bay serving as a refuge for hunting clubs that sprung up around the abundant wildlife at the time, law enforcement was hesitant to enter Drawbridge because most of the visitors and residents were armed.

“It was one of the most relaxing places in the world,” said long-gone Drawbridge resident Nelly Dollin on an archived tape.

Though it doesn’t look like it now, people called Drawbridge home for more than a century as they built their lives along its muddy marsh.

When it all started in 1876 with drawbridge operator, George Mundersheitz, who opened and closed the drawbridges with a hand crank when trains came through, the town had a population of one- George! He needed to open the “swing” bridges to allow boats to pass the railroad tracks.

Not long after hunters and fishermen would soon follow.

As Jonah Owen Lamb notes in his essay on Station Island in a Martin and Lee book, Mundersheitz began inviting friends to stay the night in his cabin when they visited the island to go duck hunting. Word spread and duck hunters erected a cabin called the Gordon Gun Club on the little island, the first of many duck hunting clubs. Two hotels followed. The railroad added stops at the island to accommodate the influx of visitors.

“They were the pioneers in that area. They built that up,” said Alviso resident Barton Laine.

Laine’s family has lived in Alviso, which is about three miles south of Drawbridge, for generations. He has witnessed firsthand the community’s rise and fall.

“It looks totally different now than it did. It’s all overgrown and dilapidated,” said Laine.

“The owners of the houses, once in a while, maybe had some rather questionable people with them. I don’t know. I didn’t know those people very well,” said former resident Rita Lally on a tape.

Drawbridge has over its history been forgotten, abused, declared dead and brought back to life countless times in the media.

“They did seem to call it a ghost town like no one lived there,” said Cecilia Craig, president of the San Francisco Bay Wildlife Society,

“They enjoyed being out there. They enjoyed the independence,” said Craig.

Prohibition did not markedly influence the rise or fall of Drawbridge. The significantly larger factors were the uncontrolled sewage from San Jose, Fremont, and Newark, followed by the proliferation of salt ponds, then followed by water wells going saline with the lowering of the water table. Plus cultural changes made it less attractive as a destination or place to live.

“The sewage was being piped out into Coyote Creek and not being treated,” said Craig.

Drawbridge became a sinking, stinking shadow of itself. All but its most die-hard residents slowly moved away one-by-one.

“Vandalism became more of an issue because you had less and less people living there. So, it looked abandoned even though clearly some of the houses were not,” explained Craig.

Even the train to which Drawbridge owes its existence eventually stopped going there, adding to its isolation.

With the end of Prohibition, residents started to trickle out of the town. After the “turn bridge” drawbridges were removed and most of the residents had left, a major San Jose newspaper for years incorrectly reported that the town was a ghost town and that the residents left valuables behind. These reports encouraged vandals to enter the town, as a result, the people still living there had their homes vandalized. The town’s last resident is said to have left in 1979, and now Drawbridge is considered to be the San Francisco Bay Area’s only ghost town.

“As the area restores, it’s our goal that it once again becomes that wildlife mecca where there are birds and fish that are using that area again,” said SFBNWR manager Jared Underwood.

In an effort to prevent further damage to the town the federal government has declared Drawbridge off-limits making it inaccessible and allowing it to become a ghost town, a label it had so long resisted. To get anywhere near drawbridge today, you now need a boat.

“Tide and time waits for nobody. The people out there took care of it. It’s been long neglected. They’ve just let it just rot away,” said Kyle Laine the son of former resident Barton Laine.

The boom times sank along with the island itself and the raw sewage that the city of Fremont and San Jose began dumping into the bay did not increase the site’s allure. Salt manufacturing in the South Bay also expanded. By the 1930s, half of the marshland had been converted into salt ponds, destroying the habitat of many birds. With polluted water and fewer birds to hunt, Drawbridge lost its luster and visitors came there less frequently.

The last train stopped in Drawbridge in 1955.

The walls and roofs of the town’s once modest buildings have more so in recent years become a target for arsonists and a canvas for trespassing graffiti artists, who mark their territory as if they owned Drawbridge. Their chaotic, sometimes incoherent scribbling proves that they were here just as the spirits of the people of the town that once was.

Charles Luce was the last resident of Drawbridge and lived alone out there for years.

“One character, he came in there. He broke the door, I was inside,” Luce said in an interview for the “Drawbridge” documentary. “And that’s when I put the shotgun right between his shoulder blades. … Don’t move. … Made him lay down on the floor, what went through my mind at that particular time is, ‘What if he won’t lie down? Will I shoot him?’ That’d be murder!”

Nowadays the easiest way to see the town is on a train that doesn’t stop there. Riding through, you can see the two dozen or so remaining structures. They are in very bad shape. A few are covered in graffiti, and others are nothing but the bones of the buildings they once were. They’ve been left to the elements and, year by year, they sink deeper into the pickleweeds, marsh, and mud.

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducts a Drawbridge Van Excursion led by long-time volunteer Ceal Craig on a periodic basis. The tour does not visit the town itself; it only goes to the closest spot from which one can legally view Drawbridge.

If you really must go see Drawbridge for yourself, remember that this is private property and trains still run on the tracks frequently. Don’t be stupid! Stay off the tracks! The trains run very fast and very quietly– many trespassers have been killed by fast approaching trains!

From the town of Alviso, a small town close to Milpitas, find the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, they are the only tracks that pass through town and walk two miles north along the tracks. This is not recommended!

You can hike to view Drawbridge, legally and safely, from a vista point on the Mallard Slough Trail Spur near Alviso.

To contact or reach the trailhead:

Environmental Education Center

Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

1751 Grand Blvd

Alviso, CA 95002

Hours: Sunrise to sunset daily

Directions to Trailhead:

From Highway 880 or 101, exit on Highway 237 toward Mountain View/Alviso. Turn north onto Zanker Rd. and continue to the refuge entrance (a sharp right turn at Grand Blvd.).

The trailhead is accessible from the Environmental Education Center parking lot. Walk through the butterfly garden or the New Chicago Marsh Trail to reach the Mallard Slough Trail.

Directions to Vista Point:

Once on the Mallard Slough Trail, walk about 1.5 miles until you reach the Mallard Slough Trail Spur. Walk 0.5 mile to the end of the Spur to view Drawbridge from across Coyote Creek.

This round-trip is about 4.4 miles on mostly flat land. It takes about 1.5 hours to walk or 22 minutes on a bicycle.

Google Maps link: https://goo.gl/maps/AkpfCgKwQc82


The trail needs to be dry to make walking feasible. If it has rained recently, the muddy trail might need a number of days to dry, depending on the extent of the rain.

If you go, remember to take out what you bring in and it never hurts to pick up any trash that some ill-mannered visitor left behind.

The majestic Mission Peak rises in the background. At the foot of this steep peak sits the Mission San Jose that was founded on June 11, 1797, by the Franciscan order and was the fourteenth Spanish mission established in California.

The mountain in the background can be seen as a monument to modern man– the Fremont Landfill. Now “more pleasantly” known as the Tri-Cities Waste Management, Disposal and Fremont Commercial Transfer Station.

Drawbridge in 1976:

The following photographs were taken on a cold blustery day in 1976.

The series of photos were taken when it was relatively easy to access the ghost town. Even back then officials were reluctant to get involved in any sort of protection or preservation of this historic place.

The day in 1976 started out by our small adventuresome group being dropped off at the Alviso Marina, a place that you really didn’t want to visit while the effluent tainted tide was ebbing. The smell that became well-known as the “Alviso Smell” was at times hard to understand how people could live in that small hamlet.

Our trek began on a foggy Saturday morning. The chill of the south bay breeze was initially uncomfortable but we had dressed in layers so as the day warmed we adjusted nicely.

Our goal was to walk north along the former Southern Pacific train tracks that cut through Alviso, stopping for a photo session at Drawbridge and lunch. We would continue our trek north along the rails, passing the creepy Walking Taco Ranch at the western end of South Fremont on what is now Automall Parkway. The hike would pass over what was once the Rancho Pastoria De Las Borregas, which was an original Spanish land grant, then we would travel over the old Mayfield tract where the family farm still grew all sorts of vegetables, mostly cauliflower. Our adventure would end at Mowry Road in Newark.

The Gordon Gun Club was the second building that would be constructed in Drawbridge after the bridge tender’s cabin. It is supposed that the captain of a former ship built the place to resemble the cabin from one of his ships. Some say that he used remnants of one of his old ships for the material. Then there are others who contend that the railroad built it to resemble a railroad passenger car.

Prior to anyone remotely envisioning a town in the tidal marshes of the south bay, the former Spanish owners established vast rancheros that ran huge herds of cattle. One such was the Rancho Pastoria De Las Borregas that included the tract of land where the town of Drawbridge would eventually be located within its boundary. Life revolved around the herds and was enlivened by fiestas and feasts. They were skilled horsemen and rode everywhere. They traded hides for things they could not grow or make. They were religious, gracious, healthy, family-oriented people who enjoyed their simple, vigorous, outdoor life.

The city of Fremont formally began when the Mission San Jose was founded by the Spanish padre Father Fermin Lasuen on June 11, 1797. It would be the 14th of 21 missions that were built in California Mission located not far from the Pueblo of San Jose near the foot of Mission Peak.

The Spanish Mission system initially dominated the lives of the indigenous Ohlone people who were forced to accept the “new” way of life and religion. The Mission community was eventually under the control of the Mexican government until the war with the United States eventually ceded California. Many of the Ohlones that hadn’t died from the harsh treatment and the “white man’s diseases” went to work on the ranchos, or returned to their former way of life or joined other local Native American communities.

The area that surrounded the tract of land that would eventually become the town of Drawbridge would remain pristine, largely undeveloped and pastoral.

With the discovery of gold in California and the mad dash to exhume every piece of the precious metal from the land, no matter who owned the land it changed the peaceful, pastoral life of the ranchos. More and more settlers began to arrive. In 1846 the ship “Brooklyn” arrived in San Francisco with a large group of Mormon settlers including the Mowry family of which the road that would be our final destination would be named.

Many of the Mormons settled in the east bay area of Fremont. The great “Pathfinder” Colonel John C. Fremont, whom the city would get its name from, came through the area as he pursued the Mexican militants. Colonel Fremont liked Mission San Jose so much that he even tried to buy it.

At the time of our hike through Drawbridge we only misguidedly assumed that this historical place would always remain, despite the obvious signs vandalism were already showing. As a great fan of history, especially local history, I missed a great opportunity to document the remains of this town and its death throes.

Even back in 1976, it was clear that Mother Nature considered Drawbridge cancerous and was doing its best to eliminate the town. The marshland was already causing many of the buildings that were already damaged by vandals to sink deeper into the stinking, sewage polluted mud.

As the tide ebbed and flowed, the buildings sank deeper into the mudflats. Pickleweed, a succulent that thrives among the salt marshes, began to grow taller and began to branch out in thicker masses as fewer and fewer people inhabited Drawbridge. Many of the buildings were no longer accessible useless one wore long rubber waders.

By 1976 the town of Drawbridge had just one remaining resident who would be the last hold out. He tells the story of the difficulty his ancestors had when a town resident or some rowdy visitor passed away. “They didn’t have a formal cemetery nearby, so if no one claimed the body, they would just give them a “burial at sea” by taking them into the bay by a skiff.”

Pickleweed and seagrass had grown very tall in 1976 and already taken back what was once their prime real estate before the white man came to California. Power lines were still in service back then.

A Cotton Belt (formerly the St. Louis Southwestern Railway) locomotive rides the Coast Route over the southern rotating bridge leading into Drawbridge. Operation of the Cotton Belt was assumed by parent company Southern Pacific in 1992 which was eventually taken over by the Union Pacific Railroad.

The revolving bridge at the southern end of the town where the operator had to manually rotate the “drawbridge” in order for ships to pass through the slough.

Above, the salt evaporation pond northeast of the town of Drawbridge.

A ghostly figure in 1976 walks along the former Southern Pacific train tracks through the town of Drawbridge

Please don’t shoot my house!

The last living resident, Charles Luce, left in 1979 after Drawbridge became part of the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge (SFBNWR).

“They shot my windows out quite a number of times. I’ve got more bullet holes in that place than I can shake a stick at,” said Luce.

With limited funds and even more limited human resources, combined with a decades-long “hands-off” policy, the restoration efforts of Drawbridge would have been astronomical. The decision was made to simply let Mother Nature take her course and allow the town to sink into the salt marsh.

And so our day trip in 1976 to Drawbridge ended at our destination of Mayfield at Mowry Boulevard. In hindsight, I should have brought several canisters of good old Kodak film. To this day I wish that I had had a better camera and longed to have had my digital photography back in the day. It would have helped document a ghost town whose spirits had begun to drift away.

Below are several views, courtesy of Google Earth, showing the location of Drawbridge in relation to its surroundings.

All photographs are the copyright of Jim Jackson Photography. Please contact me for authorization to use any photos or for hand-signed, high-resolution copies.



Drawbridge San Francisco Bay Wildlife Society (www.sfbws.com/drawbridge)

Drawbridge, California: From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drawbridge,_California)

San Jose, California Drawbridge San Francisco Bay’s ghost town (www.atlasobscura.com/places/drawbridge)

A Rare Look At The Bay Area’s Only Ghost Town by Devin Fehely KPIX 5 (sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2018/12/30/kpix-5-tours-drawbridge-bay-areas-only-ghost-town/)

Drawbridge – California Ghost Town – Ghosttowns.com (http://www.ghosttowns.com/states/ca/drawbridge.html)

Bay Area’s only ghost town, Drawbridge, is on an island – SFGate (www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Bay-Area-s-only-ghost-town-Drawbridge-is-on-5980299.php)

The Island Ghost Town in the Middle of San Francisco Bay – KQED (www.kqed.org/news/11549263/the-island-ghost-town-in-the-middle-of-san-francisco-bay)

A Brief History of Washington Township by Phil Holmes (museumoflocalhistory.org/resources/a-brief-history-of-washington-township/)























































































Leave A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.