DRAWBRIDGE (KPIX 5) — Ghostly echoes helped tell the tale of a place where its history was, at times, as murky as the San Francisco Bay waters that now threaten it.
KPIX 5 got special permission from the federal government to go on a rare tour of a place that few people know exist and fewer still have ever visited. We visited Drawbridge, the Bay Area’s only ghost town.
Ghostly echoes helped tell the tale of a place where its history was, at times, as murky as the bay waters that now threaten it.
“It’s the most relaxing place 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 lives on its marsh mud.
It all started in 1876 with one man, who was an employee of the South Pacific Coast Railroad. His job was to open and close the bridges at each end of “Station Island,” which is what Drawbridge was also called.
Hunters and fishermen would soon follow.
“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 as it’s known has been forgotten, declared dead and brought back to life countless times in newsprint over the years.
“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,
In its heyday, Drawbridge had nearly a hundred families living on the island with hundreds more coming to fish, hunt, sail and gamble on weekends.
“They enjoyed being out there. They enjoyed the independence,” said Craig.
Beginning in the 1930’s, Drawbridge entered a long period of decline. The island itself was sinking as underground aquifers were pumped dry across the South Bay. Pollution from nearby cities like San Jose only made matters worse.
“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.
The last living resident, Charles Luce, left in 1979 after Drawbridge became part of the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge (SFBNWR). A fateful decision was made to leave Drawbridge to sink slowly… back into the marsh.
“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.
“As the area restores, it’s our goal that it once again becomes that wildlife mecca where there’s birds and fish that are using that area again,” said SFBNWR manager Jared Underwood.
Off-limits and inaccessible Drawbridge became a ghost town, a label it had so long resisted.
To get anywhere near drawbridge today, you need a boat.
Laine’s son Kyle took KPIX 5 out on an overcast afternoon in November to get a closer look at the crumbling, weather-beaten remnants of the buildings on the northern end of the island.
“Tide and time waits for nobody. The people out there took care of it. It’s been neglected. They’ve just let it rot away,” said Lane.
In the dying light, what little is left of Drawbridge comes to life, painted in a palette of amber and bronze.
The town’s weathered walls and rusted roofs are now a canvas for trespassing graffiti artists, who are eager to declare they they were once there. They share that with the spirits of Drawbridge.