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February 14, 2012 > History: Ghost Towns

History: Ghost Towns

The South Pacific Coast Railroad constructed a line and built drawbridges to carry their tracks over the waterways of Mud Slough and Coyote Creek. A small station was erected for the bridge tender, and the land became known as Station Island. The community that developed was called Drawbridge and the tracks were the only street; they ran for a mile right down the center of town between the 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, a small store and eating room attached and was known for its good German meals.

Great flocks of ducks around Drawbridge attracted hordes of duck hunters and other pleasure seekers. The entertainment atmosphere drew up to 2,000 people who came 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 of the 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. Most of the families had a motorboat, sailboat or canoe that they berthed on the water in back of their houses. 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.

The earthquake of 1906 caused wide-spread damage, and Drawbridge started to decline. Businesses were closed and houses vacated. The water table in the Santa Clara Valley fell because of excessive pumping and 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.

One meaning of ghost is a "false image." That meaning may apply to some towns as their images do not appear to be real. They could also be called "towns that never were." Perhaps they never existed except in the minds and plans of developers out to create their own towns.

The Newark area has survived several "ghost towns" over the years. The first American farmers near Beard's Landing squatted on 160 acres by Coyote Hills. Joseph Mayhew added this claim to his farm which he called Green Point, and then sold it all to Alexander Forbes of San Francisco who wanted to start a town at that location but never did. Forbes sold to the Perrin brothers who operated a large dairy at that location and continued Forbes dream for a town site. They surveyed and developed an elaborate promotion map dated 1875 with named streets and Byington Park in the center, under the guise of the Newark Land Company. The plans failed and the scheme was taken over by the South Pacific Coast Railroad.

Land speculation in Newark did not end there. The Mowry Addition, about a mile south of town, failed to attract many buyers even at $150 for an acre lot. An "Encyclopedia Britannica" scheme offered lots to those who bought encyclopedias and pots and pans in the 1930's. These lots later had to be assembled by developers and repurchased before they could be developed.

Union City, founded by John Horner at "Devil's Elbow" in September 1850, was an immediate success. Henry Smith founded a second town called New Haven and sold the first lots in March 1851. He built a store and house in his town where Santa Clara County Supervisors authorized a voting precinct in 1852, before Alameda County was formed.

Union City and New Haven were so successful that Jones and Strode, two San Francisco lawyers established a town called Alvarado in 1852. The California State Legislature created Alameda County and designated New Haven as the county seat and Alvarado the seat of Justice.

In March 1853 there were three towns. Alameda County officials met in Smith's store in New Haven, but their first minutes were dated in Alvarado. Apparently New Haven had discarded its old name and taken the new name of Alvarado. Some deeds and surveyor's notes read "Alvarado, formerly New Haven", but the name New Haven was soon dropped. The owner of the now nameless town (Alvarado) sold lots, and its area became part of Union City by popular consent. By 1860 all three town owners had sold their property and the towns were "left to their own fate." The name Union City was lost. Only the name Alvarado remained for the town until Union City became the new, modern city and New Haven the name of the school district.

Union City and New Haven never became "real" ghost towns. They just lost their names. No ghosts were needed to create confusion. Apparently people did that without any help from the spirit world... and that's the story of "our ghost towns."

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