Welcome to Drawbridge: The Bay Area’s Ghost Town

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Welcome to Drawbridge, CA
Population: 0
Elevation: 7 ft and sinking

Over a hundred years ago it was a bustling town and weekend getaway destination. Today Drawbridge is a peaceful wetland sanctuary with strewn remains of the the old town’s structures slowly collapsing and sinking into the bay. It is the only ghost town in the San Francisco Bay Area.

It all started in 1876. A tiny cabin was built on Station Island 2 1/2 miles north of Alviso for a drawbridge operator for the South Coast Pacific Railroad’s line connecting Newark and San Jose. Before long, the drawbridge operator’s friends began to join him for some whiskey drinking, hunting, and fishing. Passersby riding the train saw all the fun to be had out in the secluded marshlands, and soon it became a regular train stop. By the 1880s, the tiny town would see 1,000 visitors flocking to its tucked away paradise on weekends for hunting and fishing.

By 1926, the town had reached its heyday, having grown to 90 buildings, many with wells and electricity. The residents split into two communities: The “stuck-up” Protestants lived in North Drawbridge, and the wilder Catholics resided in South Drawbridge. While quite a bit of feuding ensued, there were also “tide parties” where residents would row to neighbors’ houses for parties at high tide.

But as things were taking off for Drawbridge, the end was already looming. Booming construction in nearby San Jose pumped millions of gallons of water and raw sewage into the wetlands. Drawbridge began to sink…and stink. The nearby salt industry also grew and the waterfowl fled for a less salty environment, leaving the hunters with nothing to hunt. In 1955 the trains no longer stopped in Drawbridge, and everyone moved away…all but two last residents, that is. Charlie Luce and Nellie “Shotgun” Dollin refused to leave and fired upon anyone who dared approach them. They were gone by 1979. Drawbridge was a ghost town.

I set out for an impromptu trek to Drawbridge one warm winter afternoon, completely unprepared for an urban exploration journey. As the sun began to dip toward the horizon, I set off down the rocky trail with a camera and tripod slung over my shoulder. As the miles wore on, the sights and city noise of Fremont diminished on the horizon as the nature of the bay’s magnificent wetlands came alive. The old drawbridges for which the town was named have been replaced by modern rail bridges currently traversed by the frequent Altamont Commuter Express train. Getting to the town involves crossing one of the narrow bridges, wide enough only for the width of the 70 mph train. Reminiscent of the infamous train bridge crossing scene in Stand By Me, I stood at the end of the bridge looking off to the distance in both directions for any sign of a train. I moved onward. Exactly midway across the bridge, I hear it–the wail of a train horn. Traaaaaain!!! My walk turned to a trot as the flickering headlight of the train brightened. I made it across with time to spare.

With not a soul to be found, only the sounds of rustling wetland vegetation and the honking of hundreds of species of waterfowl filled the empty air. I spent a good hour exploring the twenty or so dilapidated remains of old gun clubs, a hotel, and houses. It’s the kind of place you can just sit and stare, soaking up the awe-inspiring scene of birds by the tens of thousands moving about. But with the sun slipping out of sight with nothing more than an eyelash of a moon in the sky, it was time for me to begin my flashlight-less journey back.

Drawbridge, CA: The Bay Area's Ghost Town
Drawbridge, CA: The Bay Area's Ghost Town

The sun sets in Drawbridge, CA.

Silence Unbroken

Drawbridge, CA: The Bay Area's Ghost Town

Drawbridge, CA: The Bay Area's Ghost Town
Drawbridge, CA: The Bay Area's Ghost Town
Drawbridge, CA: The Bay Area's Ghost Town
Drawbridge, CA: The Bay Area's Ghost Town
Drawbridge, CA: The Bay Area's Ghost Town
Drawbridge, CA: The Bay Area's Ghost Town
Drawbridge, CA: The Bay Area's Ghost Town
Drawbridge, CA: The Bay Area's Ghost Town
Drawbridge, CA: The Bay Area's Ghost Town
Drawbridge, CA: The Bay Area's Ghost Town
Drawbridge, CA: The Bay Area's Ghost Town
Drawbridge, CA: The Bay Area's Ghost Town
Drawbridge, CA: The Bay Area's Ghost Town
Swipe left or right to view photos:

Drawbridge is now part of the US National Wildlife Refuge and a part of the largest wetland restoration ever attempted. They could have restored the town’s old buildings and turned it into a tourist attraction, but the feds made the right decision here: let nature grasp the remains of the tattered town and reclaim her land. Experiencing the beauty of these wetlands firsthand, I knew this was the only way to go. Within the next few decades, all sign of human habitation here will completely disappear.

Note that Drawbridge is now completely off limits to the public. The only way to see it is aboard either the Amtrak Capitol or Altamont Commuter Express train which pass through daily.

  • KM

    When did it become off-limits? When were you there?

    ~k

  • I think it’s been off-limits for decades but it’s not really hard to get there. Just a long walk.

  • TSH

    I’d love to see some of these in your store

  • ME

    IM A SUPERHERO, MASTER OF MASTER!

  • ojay

    My family and I walked the railroad tracks from Alviso to Drawbridge in the mid 1980’s. I can remember that the cross ties of the tracks over the water were open. We had to leap to the cross ties to avoid falling into the water below.

  • Marc C

    I saw you on Bloomberg. Too bad you didn’t go into Drawbridge on that segment!

  • Sidney Roche

    We rode our bikes out to it about 4 years ago. It wasn’t closed

  • kayla

    I’m interested in doing some photography here. By a long walk, are we talking woods, back roads? Through water. I’m just trying to map things out in my head.

  • Dwight

    These photos are incredibly beautiful. I visited the island on one of the tours in 1997 and you have captured the surreal nature of place. Thanks for posting these.

  • Just went tonight. Its about a 3 mile walk along the train tracks. Its not blocked off at all, but be careful since its technically off limits. Between 6 and 9pm when we were there, trains run about every 30 minutes. It took us at least 45 minutes to get there so on the way there and the way back we had to get to the side ledge and lay there as the train passes. Not much room on either side of the tracks. Once you get there, you’re walking through reeds, grass, mud, and crossing small streams. There are two main parts to the town. One is the main town, circled in red. The other is a smaller part of town, circled in green. When I went, we thought that the “green” part of town was all there is. Its not, so make sure you go to the “red” part of town. To get to the green part, you need to cross a very slippery, muddy stream with a small canyon. If you go to where the blue circle is, me and my friends made somewhat of a bridge with several large, heavy planks.

  • Larry Baugher

    A friend use to own one of the homes there we go down there and shot guns duck hunt and just hang out. There was lot of problems with people braking in to the remaining houses that were inhabitable. there was also a young couple with a baby that lived at the south end. I was about 1971. Larry B

  • Darol Souza

    I just read this and had to respond. My sister and her husband and baby (actually they had a 2 year old boy and 1 year old girl) and it was my parents house. I was conceived there (1947) and because my older brother needed to start Kindergarten, they bought a house on Hedding St in San Jose and by 1954, 5of 6 of us went to College Park elementary school. Then we moved to Agnew which was next to the same tracks that went through Drawbridge. Fortunately we still had the cabin and stayed out there all the time. Working, playing and relaxing. Six months after my dad sold it in ’75 or ’76, it was burned to the ground. I still have things from the cabin to this day and still have those warm fuzzy feelings you get just thinking back to such a peaceful time. Thanks for letting me ramble a bit.