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October 28, 2009 > History: Drawbridge - Our Disappearing Ghost Town

History: Drawbridge - Our Disappearing Ghost Town

The marshy island that stretched between Coyote Creek and Mud Slough at the south end of San Francisco Bay didn't even have a name. It was frequented only by the crews of flat-bottomed scows and two-masted schooners that carried hay, grain and produce from the crude docks at Dixon and Warm Springs Landings to San Francisco.

The South Pacific Coast Railroad constructed a line from Newark across the island into Santa Clara County about 1876. They built drawbridges to carry the tracks over the waterways of Mud Slough on the north and Coyote Creek on the south. A small station was erected for the bridge tender, and the land became known as Station Island. The community that developed was called Drawbridge. Tracks were the only street running for a mile right down the center of town between rows of houses.

Cabins were built by railroad workers, employees of salt companies, duck hunters and vacationers. Commercial establishments followed, and Drawbridge became a regular weekend resort. George Sprung erected his hotel in 1902 with 10 rooms and a small store and eating room attached. It was known for good German meals.

There was another hotel in the French colony at the south end of town called the Hunter's Home. It had a large dance floor with bedrooms built around it. Fresh duck dinners cost 35 cents. Former residents hinted that there could have been some questionable activities here that contributed to the town's wild reputation. Also, at the Gordon, a self-help hostel, a duck hunter could get a place to sleep and cook his own meal for 50 cents a night.

Great flocks of ducks around Drawbridge attracted hordes of duck hunters and other pleasure seekers. The entertainment atmosphere drew up to 2,000 people with their dogs, guns, whiskey and supplies for a weekend of fun and frolic. Families who spent their vacations there often made a point of leaving before duck season opened.

Many buildings were simple hunters' cabins or clubs but some of the vacation homes were quite attractive and even had patios and decks decorated with flowers. The only two-story house was originally owned by the Wendt family. One of the nicer homes near the station was owned by Samuel Bishop. Nellie Dollin said that she had lived in four different houses.

Before the dikes were built around Drawbridge, the slough was deep enough for all kinds of boating. Most families had a motorboat, sailboat or canoe berthed on the water in back of their houses. There was even a beautiful yacht there for a while. Pleasure boats often came in from the bay and used the drawbridges to circle the island.

Drawbridge was a favorite fishing spot with an abundance of striped bass, anchovies, smelt and clams. People also dropped nets from Coyote Bridge to catch shrimp when the tide was running.

Some former residents recalled that Drawbridge did not deserve its wild party reputation. Most people who stayed there were from fine families. They brought their children for vacations and enjoyed a happy family life of dinners, parties, visiting, fishing, boating and swimming.

The earthquake of 1906 caused widespread damage and Drawbridge started to decline. Businesses closed and houses were vacated. The water table in the Santa Clara Valley fell because of excessive pumping. Anderson Dam slowed the flow of fresh water down Coyote Creek. Salt water seeped into the wells. Freshwater fish and vegetation vanished.

Surrounding marshlands were diked for salt ponds in the thirties. Station Island began to sink, and the Southern Pacific Railroad had to raise the tracks about two feet every few years to keep them from disappearing into the mud. The drawbridges were closed in the forties. Thieves and vandals ransacked vacant houses and fires raged uncontrolled. Boardwalks disappeared and houses collapsed. Only four people maintained cabins in the seventies. The last resident left in 1979 when the area became part of the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

The ruins of Drawbridge are still there on Station Island, slowly sinking in the sand. While it's no longer possible to visit Drawbridge at will, a van tour is available at the Environmental Education Center in Alviso (408) 262-5513. The program offers a slideshow before a short ride to the closest place where Drawbridge can be legally viewed across Coyote Creek. Reservations are required.

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