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The only ghost town in the Bay Area

Gunning skiff, Collection of San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. Photo courtesy of Oakland Museum of California.

Think of a ghost town, and San Francisco Bay is not likely to come to mind. Yet the remnants of such a place are currently sinking into the marshes near Fremont. Back in the 1920s, the settlement of Drawbridge boasted about 90 buildings, most having some connection to duck hunting.

The community got started around 1880 when a railroad company built a track across a couple of the major sloughs: Mud Slough and Coyote Creek Slough. “By law you couldn’t block any of these,” says Louise Pubols, Senior Curator of History at the Oakland Museum of California. “This is how most of the major shipping went in and out of the Bay. So they put drawbridges there, hence the name of the town.”

The station agent was the only guy in town, so he had plenty of time to notice the great duck hunting there. Word got around, and pretty soon people started building hunting shacks. A re-creation of one is in the Oakland Museum of California’s extensive “Above and Below” exhibit about the many changes in the bay. There’s no mistaking this shack for a grand country club.

“These were regular Joes, people who worked, probably, in canneries, or other kinds of businesses,” Pubols says. “On the weekends they’d go up to Drawbridge and they would do ‘market hunting,’” which is hunting as many ducks as you could to later sell to restaurants and butcher shops. Around 1900, about a quarter million ducks were sold in the markets of San Francisco every year. Many of them came from Drawbridge.

“Market hunting” was responsible in part for the creation of the state Fish & Game Commission. The practice was outlawed in the early 1900s – not that anyone in Drawbridge paid much attention to it. Charles Luce, one of the last residents of the community is recorded as saying the game warden never came by to check: “He would probably have been shot.”

Pubols says the hunters devised a way to dodge this ban, in the unlikely event anyone did challenge them. They created a system known as Duck Roulette. The hunters still took suitcases loaded with ducks into town, but they didn’t “sell” them. Folks from the restaurants and hotels bet money, and the hunters bet ducks. “And somehow by the end of the evening,” Pubols says, “all the ducks went one way, all the money went the other way. Nobody had actually bought ducks, or sold ducks, but somehow the same effect had taken place.”

Drawbridge had a pretty good run as a boomtown, before it’s success led to its decline. Pubols notes that nearby San Jose was growing by then, and all of its untreated sewage was going straight into the bay. That part of the bay began to silt up, degrading the water quality and making the area unattractive for both humans and waterfowl. A few people continued to live there into the late 1970s, when vandalism became a problem; word was out that these places were all abandoned, which wasn’t entirely true.

Ironically, the only residents of Drawbridge today are ducks and other birds. The area is part of protected wetlands, off-limits to the public. Game wardens still seldom visit, but they now control it, as part of the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge.

The “Above and Below” exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California continues until February 23, 2014.

To listen to this story, please click on the audio player above.