Here is a new article in the San Jose Mercury News with some quotes based on our new work on sea level rise and marshes in the southern San Francisco Bay.
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.
But the town’s surge in popularity, combined with other factors, proved unsustainable, according to Goldwasser and Craig.
Without regulatory protection, waterfowl populations plummeted. Using cannons loaded with chains and nails, hunters could kill more than 500 ducks with a single shot. Ducks were so easy to kill that they fetched only three cents each, according to a historical summary by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Bay became polluted by waste, no longer sustaining fish and shrimp. Drawbridge’s toilets were built over water, flushed only by tides. Even worse was the raw sewage emptied by nearby fast-growing cities, agricultural runoff and the vegetable and fruit pulp dumped by canneries.
Then the island started sinking — an estimated 10 feet from the 1800s to 1970, according to USFWS senior wildlife biologist Doug Thomson. Most of the collapse was caused by loss of groundwater due to historic agricultural pumping. But there was also compression of the island’s soft clay mud soils.
It became a constant struggle to elevate or rebuild homes. Boating grew more difficult due to the construction of levees and salt ponds by the Leslie Salt Company. With no firemen to answer the call, cabins burned. Then the Great Depression hit.
The effort to survive proved futile. Drawbridge’s population plummeted — and by 1955, trains no longer stopped.
“They were getting wetter, and running out of food – so people started to move away,” said Thomson. With fewer residents, crime spiked.
Charles Luce and his dog Quincy were the last residents of Drawbridge, fending off vandals with threats into the 1970s.
“Four times they broke down the door when I was inside. I had to take charge them,” he recalled in a 2000 interview. “I’m well-armed, with a 12-gauge double-barreled shotgun that makes ’em dizzy looking down the barrel.”
He packed up in 1976 after Drawbridge became federal property, joining the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. All public access ended in the late 1990s.
Charred, collapsed and inaccessible, the remaining homes aren’t worth saving, federal authorities have decided. There’s another reason to let nature take its course: Drawbridge is now considered endangered species habitat. A steady stream of visitors could harm the federally-protected bird called Ridgway’s rail or salt harvest mouse.
“We do try to preserve structures when we can. But it’s not feasible to maintain or restore Drawbridge for what it would cost,” said wildlife biologist Cheryl Strong of the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Complex. “Our main priority is the endangered species that are out there.”
The triumph of nature
Now, relieved of human pressures, nature seems to be breathing a sigh of relief. Wilderness encroaches from all sides, claiming what little remains.
Rain blows through broken windows and sneaks beneath shingles. As water enters, nails rust; their grip loosens. Mildew munches through joists, studs and rafters. Roofs splay. Trusses collapse. Walls tilt.
Carpets are now made of pickleweed and cord grass. Lichens paint clapboard siding. Insects are flourishing; so are brambles, snaking around paths and pipes.
The Bay is cleaner — and as the marsh recovers, so do populations of crabs, oysters, mussels and shrimp. Gray foxes, black rails and harbor seals have been spotted at Drawbridge. Ducks like Northern pintail, shovelers and cinnamon teal are returning. Children’s voices are gone, replaced by the chatter of marsh wrens.
Submerged, the old town may someday be little more than a faint ripple on deep water.
Since Drawbridge was built a century ago, sea level globally has climbed six to eight inches — and in the next century, it will climb much higher, according to UCLA’s McDonald.
“We may see new Drawbridge cities,” he predicted, “which fail because the cost of keeping out the sea is too high.”