Of Salt Ponds, Libertarian Ghosts, Raw Sewage, and Hope

Drawbridge, today, is an enigmatic scattering of wood structures sinking slowly into the Bay. You might see it if you commute by train from San José to points northeast – unless you blink.

But Drawbridge is more than a ghost town. It is a story of California in miniature. It is like an abandoned Synecdoche, New York of the greater Bay Area, without the dramatists, ego-centrism, or neurosis. And, following an intensive restoration effort spanning many years and thousands of acres, it is becoming again part of the flourishing edge of the Bay.

Drawbridge is at the edge of eras.

Drawbridge is at the edge of three California eras. Agrarian California meets boom-time California, meets mitigative California. It appeared and disappeared in the space of less than a century, from the final decades of the Nineteenth to the late middle of the Twentieth. It boomed when irrigation for agriculture was first a statewide preoccupation, and its last occupant departed around the time computers became part of the popular consciousness. Now, it is sinking into a wildlife refuge.

Geographically, Drawbridge is situated on a tiny island – Station Island – that edges both the Bay and its shores to the south and east. The island is separated from the mainland by little more than the waters of Coyote Creek and what used to be tidal marshlands. However, during its heyday, Drawbridge meant much more to its residents than merely a trip over a bridge.

bridge to Drawbridge

The current rail bridge to Drawbridge. Access to the ghost town, visible here as a tiny collection of brown structures rising above the bridge, is illegal for safety and other reasons. The trail ends here, on the southern bank of Coyote Creek as it spills into the Bay. Photo by Sam Silbory.

Drawbridge is at the edge of place.

It always has been — this was part of its charm. Like so many tiny towns, it was en route to somewhere else. Its very name depicts its status as an interruption — a bridge in motion, a transient connection. Nevermind that, in fact, the bridge in question swung to the side (a swing bridge), rather than to the heavens (a draw bridge).

Trains were the raison d’etre of the human settlement of Station Island — the station in question was one for trains. Trains, or rather Chinese and other laborers working on their behalf with the strength of human shoulders, metal picks, and dynamite, had chiseled their way through the Sierra Nevada to breach that colossal granite north-south divide between California and the rest on the nation.

But trains before Drawbridge did not do much to transport people between, say, San Francisco and San José. Those lines were for cargo. The peopled trains that ultimately went through Drawbridge, by way of Newark or Alviso, were the brainchild of entrepreneurs who noticed that two ounces of gold was a lot for people in the northern Bay Area to pay for a dayslong, bumpy ride to the seaside idyll of Santa Cruz. So for a few, rollicking years, Drawbridge was a stop of note on a significant artery of locomotive travel.

One can imagine getting off at the Drawbridge stop. A cool, salty breeze dancing across the tules on its way to ruffle your hair. The giggles of card playing on screen porches, the off-loading of muddy boots, the excited whoots of children with long strings of fish. There was a hotel, where the proprietress slept occasionally in the bathtub to accommodate her guests. There surely was ice cream. There was the echoing of shots as hunters caught fresh duck dinner. By night, there was carousing. It was fun.

It might in this way have been a kind of paradise, especially for a pioneer-bred people.

Drawbridge was a wild corollary to the burgeoning settlements of its near neighbors. There, in San José and Newark, say, places were being carved into the landscape that would shape the lives of millions for decades to come.

Here, too, at Drawbridge, dozens of wood structures went up – but their uniting purpose was outward-focused, to the waters, the land — not inward-focused, to the interhuman networks of an urban populace. What Californian father would have exhorted his ambitious son, in the shadow of San Francisco, San José or even, at the time, the bustling port town of Alviso, to head down to Drawbridge in order to strike it rich?

Drawbridge was instead a kind of carnaval of the wild, a permanent summer camp, where a particular mode of nature play could flourish unobstructed by the gobble of land for urban growth elsewhere. This was not primarily about the trading of goods for gold. This was the trading of time for play.

How fitting, then, that the stationless island would reclaim the buildings when the play had left.

Drawbridge ruins

To the left of my ear is a ramshackle remnant of Drawbridge, on the north side of Coyote Creek. The slope on the horizon is northish of Mission Peak. Photo by Sam Silbory.

Drawbridge was at the edge of culture.

Drawbridge was a microcosm of human society in other ways, too. Throughout California’s history, peoples of distant lands have pressed into each others’ lives. Here, too, at Drawbridge, Chinese fisherfolk and shrimpers lived, for a moment at least, aside settlers of European descent well-armed for hunting. Perhaps some of these same people had helped carve the way for the trains through the Sierra, and perhaps these others had ridden them here. There surely was unease and tension between these residents, but also, it was a very small space, and people of different cultural features did manage to co-occupy it. Perhaps they shared a watermelon from time to time.

Drawbridge was about freedom, an excellent volunteer guide, Dr. Ceal Craig, President of the San Francisco Bay Wildlife Society, repeatedly emphasized during a recent lecture and public tour of the area. At Drawbridge, women could wear trousers instead of skirts. Children could splash in the marsh, perhaps catching frogs or fish with their hands alone. Birds canvassed the area so abundantly one can almost see them flying straight into hunters’ boat-bound laps. Why worry about the burgeoning effluence drifting north from Alviso or, more ominously, from San Jose? This is where the people go to play.

Drawbridge is at the edge of survival.

For millenia, the Ohlone people in the area traveled in tule boats and gorged themselves on abundant shelfish and other marine and land life. In addition to the waterfowl, plants of resplendent variety blanketed the marsh in multitudinous hues and layers of green, and amber, and azure, and brown. It was an ideal place to be if you were a hunter-gatherer.

Then, with genocidal assistance from the next wave of immigrants, the Ohlone were here no more. In their stead were steamboats, railways, and the rising urban landscape we think of as the Bay Area today.

The salt ponds came. An enormous mound of the white harvest still punctuates the horizon to the north of Drawbridge. This extraction served a useful purpose, to be sure. We all eat salt. But the cost was the decimation of these intertidal lands.

Too, there was the output of human waste into the Bay. Even now, the southern horizon is punctuated by enormous landfills. One passes the wastewater treatment plant on the way to the Environmental Education Center, where my tour commenced. The treatment plant represents a tremendous improvement over the outpouring of raw sewage that preceded it.

Imagine what it would have been to stand on the shores of Drawbridge and see the shit of thousands drifting toward you with the tides. Fish for dinner, anyone?

No wonder that the people left and the houses started their inexorable descent. Even when the trains were replaced by automobiles, this might otherwise have been a pleasant enough waterfront location. Instead, it was beset on all sides by the brittle waste left behind by salt mining, and the influx of urban pollution.

But something extraordinary is happening here now. Literally, the edge of the Bay is flourishing.

Drawbridge is at the edge of resiliency.

The South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project appears, to my eye at least, to look like a miracle in progress. Begun only in 2008, the result of the work so far is jaw-dropping in its visual drama. Walking the trail north to Drawbridge, the entire bordering land- and water-scape reads like an environmental history tour.

See that barren zone, where nothing in sight is alive? That’s an unrestored salt pond. That’s what places look like when humans don’t play well with other species.

salt pond

An unrestored salt pond — currently barren mud — in the shadow of Mt. Allison.

 

Unrestored salt pond.

Unrestored salt pond. Photo by Sam Silbory.

See, on the other side of the levee, that lush marsh, where the birds are flocking and the reeds are blooming? Yep, that’s what nature does when given a chance to heal itself.

 

restored salt pond

Unrestored to the left, restored to the right. Wetlands aren’t supposed to be only water! Photo by Sam.

marsh with railroad

The thin straight line through the blooming marsh is the railroad.

From the Project’s website,

The South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project is the largest tidal wetland restoration project on the West Coast. When complete, the project will restore 15,100 acres of industrial salt ponds to a rich mosaic of tidal wetlands and other habitats.

San Francisco Bay has lost an estimated 85 percent of its historic wetlands to fill or alteration. This dramatic decline in tidal marsh habitats has caused populations of marsh-dependent fish and wildlife to dwindle. It has also decreased water quality and increased local flood risks. Restoration of the South Bay salt ponds provides an opportunity to begin to reverse these trends, by improving the health of San Francisco Bay for years to come.

Three pond complexes form the Project area; Drawbridge is in the middle of the southernmost one.

While Drawbridge will never come back to us, the joyous habitat it celebrated is getting a second chance to flourish. Rising seas and climate chaos are among the practical reasons to embrace this work, even for those on whom the aesthetic ones are lost.

Flourish, borderlands, flourish!


Many thanks for the excellent lecture and tour provided by Dr. Ceal Craig and hosted by the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which inspired this post. Any factual errors are entirely my own.

Happy Cinco de Mayo, everyone!

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2 thoughts on “Of Salt Ponds, Libertarian Ghosts, Raw Sewage, and Hope

  1. The irony of calling this a Libertarian paradise is it was created by the very thing Libertarian’s despise big government handouts to build the rail line. And destroyed by big government’s failure to regulate and by unrestrained industry. The flourish marshes were destroyed by the salt ponds which sprang up around Drawbridge as well as the unregulated sewage from surrounding towns.

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    • I think we can agree that to the extent Drawbridge residents were trying to enjoy a libertarian paradise, their efforts were thwarted by the lack of environmental regulation on the mainland. I’m not sure that big government had any role in the life on the island, at least not until after its human population had already crashed. But you are right to remind us that some versions of freedom conceal their true cost.

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