A century ago, the island town of Drawbridge held 90 homes, hotels and cabins, with hunting so bountiful that dead ducks served as currency at its gambling tables.

Now — in a rare act of reverse colonization — civilization is ceding to the elements in this windswept marsh, located near Alviso at the southern end of San Francisco Bay. Rising tides flood a dozen or so surviving skeletal structures. Owls nest inside battered roofs. Mud entombs a once-tidy network of boardwalks. Every step is as soft as a sponge, with pickle weed looping around ankles like booby traps.

Unlike ghost towns of Bodie, Calico or Virginia City, there’s no rescue for Drawbridge. 

“It’s drowning… a memorial to past human aspirations and a memorial to failure,” said Glen MacDonald, a UCLA professor of geography who studies the impact of rising waters caused by climate change, on West Coast estuaries.

And as waters continue to rise, the entire island could vanish, according to MacDonald, one of the authors of a recent study led by the U.S. Geological Survey that found that rising sea levels will threaten every salt marsh in California. Their research, published in the journal Science Advances, predicts that as sea level rises from 1.5 to 5.5 feet over the next century, marshes will be squeezed out — and water will lap up against our cities.

Unlikely town, impossible place

From birth, Drawbridge was an unlikely community on an impossible site, just feet above sea level.

Originally a wild marsh between two sloughs, the 80-acre island was created when the South Pacific Coast Railroad Co. laid a train track linking Alviso and Newark, on a route from Santa Cruz to Alameda.

The railroad brought a growing population to its shores. In the 1880s, there were so many hunters and fishermen that the railroad offered baggage cars as sleeping quarters. Within a decade, Drawbridge — named for the movable bridge that opened for boat traffic carrying canned goods from Santa Clara Valley to San Francisco — was designated an official train stop. Trains brought more people and more construction. Some cabins were weekend and vacation homes; others were full-time residences, homes for families with children.

Newly published photos and interviews reveal – in residents’ own words – the birth and death of the community. The book, called “Sinking Underwater” by Anita Goldwasser and Cecilia D. Craig of the San Francisco Bay Wildlife Society, describes a quirky place that thrived for decades with no town council, no police, no fire protection, no school.

In 1928, the town peaked at 90 dwellings. North Drawbridge was largely Protestant; South Drawbridge was Catholic. Homes were built on stilts, and connected by boardwalks. Some homes had lampposts, wood cabinets and paneling; others had burlap wall coverings and linoleum floors. Redwood shingles were sealed with oil for durability.

Fresh water, drawn from a tower, sold for $5 a year. Electricity arrived in 1931. Residents were resourceful; to move heavy supplies, they built carts that rolled along the tracks. Some commuted by train to jobs in San Jose, Newark and Oakland.

“The front of our house had a nice, big screened porch,” recalled former resident Ozzie Long, in an interview recounted in the book. “My mother used to bring her embroidery.”

Even though Drawbridge lacked solid dry land, parents brought small swing sets and wading pools for their young children. Guests stayed in hotels: Sprung’s Hotel, with white lace curtains and tablecloths, or Hunter’s Hotel, with a ballroom, bar and player piano.