Monday, January 18, 2016

My Mother was the Marshland: Drawbridge, CA

My mother was the marshland. My father was the railroad. I was born in 1876 after they met on Station Island. Some now say that I am a ghost town, sinking in the mud. Maybe I am, but I hate the name. So do the people who remember. They remember the independent spirit, the close friendships, the happy days and their paradise that was lost. ~ Drawbridge

It’s rare that you find a fully abandoned, 100% ghost town in the midst of one of the most urbanized areas in the country, but such is the case with Drawbridge, California. Near San Jose and flanked to the north by San Francisco and Oakland, Drawbridge is rarely visited despite being surrounded by millions of people. In fact, I lived in Oakland and never even knew about it. The reason for its low profile is a good one; Drawbridge is located in a salt marsh and sinking further into the mud with each high tide. It is also part of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which is home to several endangered species and thus closed to the public. The refuge is patrolled by US Fish & Wildlife Service personnel, who I encountered on my trip while they were trying to apprehend some other “visitors.” Why didn’t I get busted? Because, through leveraging my vast City of Dust empire, I received legitimate access and could thus arrive via boat instead of taking the illegal and dangerous route.

Like so many other ghost towns, Drawbridge was brought to life by trains. In 1876, the South Pacific Coast Railroad built a two-room cabin for a bridge tender, Mr. Mundershietz, on a new stretch of line that by 1880 would link Alameda to Santa Cruz. The cabin was deep in marshland, between Coyote Slough and Warm Springs Slough, on a chunk of relatively solid ground soon known as Station Island. Because the train would stop at Station Island, people could now get there, and because there were lots of ducks around, it was hunters who first wanted to get there. The railroad even provided an old baggage car and chair car as free accommodation for hunters.

So it was that the earliest buildings in Drawbridge were gun clubs, and there were many of them. The first structure, after the bridge tender’s cabin, was the Gordon Gun Club, probably built in 1880. Incredibly, given the transience of wooden buildings in Drawbridge, I believe its ruins are captured in the b&w photo above, based on a shot from the 1980's, when it was still easily identifiable by its rounded Dutch roof and square nails.

After the Gordon Gun Club came The Sprig Duck Club, The Widgeon Gun Club, The Twilight Gun Club, The Tony Gun Club, and cabins with names like the Precata, Recreation, Harbor View, Sorry, Don’t Worry, Clambake Club, Julie Lodge, and more. As Drawbridge was often reached by boat, boat-building and repair was another typical pastime, as were swimming and fishing, naturally.

Some people actually lived in boats, known as “arks,” which were put up on pilings. One was a 50-person Matson Line lifeboat that had a cabin built in top of it. Drawbridge’s structures, all on pilings to stay dry when the tide came in, were along the railroad tracks, which became known as “Main Street” or “A Street.” Walkways were extended from front doors straight to the tracks, a privilege for which the railroad charged $1 a year. There were also “high tide parties,” when foot paths were flooded and neighbors would visit each other by boat. Toilets, unfortunately, went right into the marsh.

In 1902, the Sprung Hotel was established. As many as 500 people would come to Drawbridge each weekend, and Mrs. Sprung would often rent her own bed and sleep in the bathtub. In 1920, with the arrival of Prohibition, she made homebrew for 25 cents as quart, as well as wine. The Hunter’s Hotel was built by Louis Demit, also in 1902, and later run by his wife, Susan. Whether Louis died or the couple divorced is unknown. Despite being smaller than the Sprung, the Hunter’s Hotel had a large ballroom decorated with stuffed birds and windows all around. It also contained a baby grand piano.

As one man familiar with Drawbridge, William McCall, Sr., said, “You wouldn’t go down there if you weren’t a different breed of cat. It wasn’t the easiest place for access; every duck you got you worked for. And like those people that went down, they were in another world. They were completely away from civilization.” Or, as the last resident of Drawbridge, Charlie Luce, put it, “…it wasn’t a disease, that Drawbridge mud just calls to you!”

By 1926, about the peak of Drawbridge, there were 90 cabins and five passenger trains coming through each day. Later, rumors circulated that Drawbridge was filled with gangsters, gamblers, and prostitutes (with a roulette wheel at the Hunter's Hotel to decide which lady of the marshy night would be yours!), but it was mostly populated by doctors, dentists, and store owners, many with a passion for duck hunting. Even so, mothers on the north end of the island warned their children to stay away from the south, while the south considered the north “stuck up.” By the way, there really was a roulette wheel, but residents said the only thing wagered on was waterfowl.

Then Drawbridge began to sink more quickly as the surrounding sloughs were cut-off by dikes or drained. Wells for fresh drinking water had to be drilled deeper. Sewage from Bay communities began to foul the water around Drawbridge, and the ducks decided it was time to leave. Next the Great Depression arrived and, after that, vandalism. Newspapers began referring to Drawbridge as a ghost town, with cabins full of antiques simply left by their owners. This was not true, so signs were hung on cabins: “Please don’t shoot my house,” and “Dear thieves and vandals, Please do not break into this little house. It’s the only home we have.” Sadly, the signs didn’t always work.

The Sprung Hotel closed in 1930. It would finally collapse in 1968. Hunter’s Hotel burned in 1943, possibly from a spark off the cigar of then-owner, Barney Panella. So Barney constructed the only two-story building ever seen in Drawbridge on the site, complete with another ballroom and yet another baby grand piano. It would burn in 1984. Throughout the history of Drawbridge, fire has been perhaps the gravest danger, even surrounded as it is by water.

By 1940, only 50 cabins remained and the marsh was so polluted it could not be swum in. By the end of the decade, the sloughs were too silted-in to navigate. The years passed and there were more fires, some thought to be for insurance pay-outs. The train no longer stopped unless it was flagged down. In the 1960’s, partiers began to make the trek to Drawbridge. Some of these people, called “dopers” by residents, would try and stay in empty cabins only to be chased out with a shotgun or an ax. In 1970, the railroad station was torn down.

Yet some old-timers held on, until at last there were two. Nellie Irene Dollin, who had first come in 1910 and bought a place in 1932, left in 1974. Her house was broken into by two drunken kids one night while she was home with her granddaughter. She had no more trouble after firing her shotgun out the window, but the newly-christened “Shotgun Nellie” had had enough and moved to nearby Hayward. Charlie Luce visited Drawbridge in 1930, but didn’t go in on a cabin—The Sunset Club—until 1950. It was torched in 1964. Charlie and some friends bought another house and he began living in Drawbridge full-time with Quincy, his dog. He was bought out by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1979. His former home burned down in 1986.

These days Drawbridge is almost more liquid than land, a condition that will only accelerate as the rate of sea level rise increases. Everyone on this trip left wet, muddy, and cold…but happy. One iPhone was submerged (while in a hip pocket!), but at least no one drowned. People are still trying to have parties, too, and continuing to damage or destroy buildings, but now they're usually getting caught before the party even gets going. While it might appear that there are a lot of structures remaining, compared to what was here 20, 30, or 40 years ago there is relatively little. Hopefully, what's left will persist until Mother Nature fully reclaims what was once hers alone, and the ghost town in a salt marsh finally vanishes entirely into the mist of the San Francisco Bay.

Many thanks to the DESFBNWR USFWS for very graciously letting me access Drawbridge. The public (which also includes me, now) is asked to please obey the "No Trespassing" signs. That's the best way to protect Drawbridge and honor its history. A special thank you to D. Thomson for providing a boat and navigation skills and generally making it all happen. Virtually all information from this post came from "Drawbridge, California: A Hand-Me-Down History" by O.L. “Monty” Dewey. If only every ghost town had such a thorough and well-researched oral history written about it. Thanks again, D.T.!

Next time we’ll be back in New Mexico, but just where is a mystery to me as much anyone. Oh, and happy birthday to me! Finally getting a new City of Dust post up is a pretty good present to myself.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Real Desert

This month I'd hoped to finally finish a piece on Drawbridge, California, the ghost town in a salt marsh, but time has moved too quickly. So, rather than let City of Dust go dark for all of November, I thought I'd post this tale. While it contains no ghost towns or historical content whatsoever, it does feature the desert as a main character. The photos were taken earlier this month, mostly in Salton City, on the west shore of the Salton Sea, in the Colorado Desert of California. However, the last two shots are from the South Bay Salt Works, the second-oldest continuously operating business in San Diego, CA. See you in December!


I’m spending a few days out in the desert again. I can’t tell if I’m moving towards something or moving away, but that’s nothing new. Whatever the case, I’ve got some time and a little bit of money so I’ve based myself out of the Whispering Sands Motel, and each morning I set off in a different direction down some desolate, windswept two-laner.

Sometimes it can be hard to find food out here and when I pass a pizza place in what looks like a wooden shack I make a u-turn, park the rental car in about five inches of sand, and go inside. They’ve got some pretty fancy slices for the middle of nowhere and the twenty-something girl behind the counter in Daisy Dukes, tank top, and tattoos seems genuinely thrilled to tell me that the caprese has been drizzled with locally-sourced balsamic vinaigrette and the Greek has real Kalamata olives. This country seems to not actually make things anymore, so I guess we’re going to see if we can float an entire economy on craft beer, pour-over coffee, medical marijuana, tattoos, and artisan pizza. Still, the slices look good and I get one of each. The girl hands them to a large, sweaty guy in the kitchen who pops them in the oven. His tattoos look like they probably cost less than hers and didn’t take nearly as long, either.

There’s no one in the dining room except for five guys in the back who have brought in a couple of their own six packs. They’re discussing “bands that are popular but not super-popular,” and, thankfully, I haven’t heard of most of them. But even so I quickly understand that they have bad taste. I grab a copy of “Sunrunner: The Journal of the Real Desert” off the rack by the door. The subtitle seems a little audacious, but there’s a story about a highway that sounds even more godforsaken than the ones I’ve been traveling. Thus, they get my attention.

The girl brings my slices out on paper plates and starts talking to the guys. At first it seems like maybe they all know each other and she asks them what kind of music they want to hear. I instantly wish she wouldn’t have.

“Do you like Zeppelin?” she says, when, happily, no one suggests anything.

That doesn’t sound terrible to me, but I guess I don’t get a vote.

She flips through her phone for a few more seconds. “How about Glen Campbell?”

Given the surroundings, that sounds better, if stranger. Don’t kids have their own music anymore? This stuff wasn’t even my music.

More silence. “Who?” asks one guy, finally.

“You know, ‘Just like a rhinestone cowboy...,’” sings the girl, only a touch out of tune.

The guys erupt in laughter, one louder than all the others, naturally.

“Nah, nah,” the loud one says, shaking his head and taking a pull off his beer. “I’m good.”

Then another suddenly looks intently at the girl. “Play your favorite song,” he says. “What's your favorite song of all-time?”

The girl is quiet and, after some obvious thought, replies, “That’s hard. That’s maybe something I’d tell somebody after we’d been together for, like, three months.”

The guy raises his hands in front of him, palms up. “What? Don’t we know each other well enough now?”

The girl takes a step backward toward the kitchen just as the guy’s phone rings. He answers, listens for a moment, frowns, then says, “I’m with the bro’s,” and hangs up, much to the amusement of his friends. It’s getting hard to focus on the story about the highway, but it seems to pass mainly through towns named after scientific elements, which is always a good sign.

“No, seriously,” says this guy, starting up again. “Play your all-time favorite song. Let’s get to know each other better.”

“I don’t think so.” The girl takes another step toward the kitchen. “It just seems, like, too personal to me.”

Now the guy lowers his voice. “Come on. I could learn some things about you that are more personal than that. Why don’t you let me? Then maybe you’ll play me your favorite song, too.”

His friends laugh and drink as the girl turns quickly and goes into the kitchen. I can hear the chef talking, but can’t make out the words. I take a few last bites of my balsamic-drizzled caprese, grab my Sunrunner Magazine, and step out the door into a blinding wall of heat and sun.

After a couple dozen miles I decide that I need a palate cleanser and stop at an AM/PM. Spending lots of time in the desert makes me crave salt, so I usually buy Payday bars. But this time I go for a Skor. As I’m reaching down for it a black man comes right up next to me and leans over, too. “Gotcha a little sweet tooth?” he whispers, almost in my ear. This is startling, but the man smiles at me so good-naturedly that as we both straighten up I’m disarmed. He’s wearing a filthy t-shirt and swaying. He seems a little drunk.

“Yeah,” I reply, also whispering, feeling conspiratorial for some reason. “Sometimes I just need a little dessert.”

He grins and blinks his eyes in a funny way before going into his pitch. “Hey, man. You don’t have maybe five dollars I could borrow for gas, do you?” He gestures weakly towards the pumps where he surely has no car. Or truck. Or ATV, for that matter. But I like this guy more than the bro’s, so I give him a dollar, trying to not draw attention from the cashier, who is looking warily in our direction. I tell the man to take care. He tells me to have a nice night and seems to really mean it.

Outside the sun is beginning to set over the spiky mountains, yet it somehow feels hotter. I don’t know how that happens in the desert, but every now and then I notice it. Maybe it’s just my imagination. Now I’m planning on doing a little off-road exploring the following day, but I didn’t bring any sunscreen. Despite my fondness for blast-furnace landscapes, I really hate suntans. A sunburn seems an affront to myself of my own doing, like spitting in my own face. So I drive further into this little town, the softening purple-blue horizon thick with mountains, reminding me why I’m out here in the first place. I begin looking for a drug store.

The first place I come to is Wal-Mart, of course. But they tend to put me in a bad mood. Since I’m pretty much already in a bad mood, I press on. Next, oddly enough, is a K-Mart. Where America shops. The red-headed stepchild to Target’s good son when I was growing up. K-Mart’s seem increasingly rare and I find no reason to ask why as I wander the ravaged shelves under brutal fluorescent lights with a handful of other spaced-out-looking customers. Finally, I find Health and Beauty and choose my protection.

Back outside it’s getting dark and as I head to my car another man sees me across the sand-strewn parking lot, sunscreen swinging in the plastic bag at my side, and begins to walk quickly over. I can feel the heat radiating off the asphalt as I slow down and then come to a full stop. I decide to wait because the man is wearing broken-down cowboy boots with thick, dingy green sweatpants tucked into them. He’s also got on a vest that looks like something a Boy Scout might have made, covered in patches and badges, and cut crudely out of a dark felt material. Underneath the vest he’s bare-chested, his skin the tone and texture of old leather. Finally, he’s sporting a crumpled, sweat-stained, black Stetson, but it’s too large and sits too low, barely above his eyes. As he approaches, he pushes the hat up.

“Hello, sir. Could you spare any change for a burger?”

My curiosity is probably obvious. “Isn’t it a little hot for sweatpants out here?”

The man laughs with seemingly genuine mirth and strikes a pose. “I’m a…a…a…”--he waves a hand theatrically, searching for words--“cock-eyed cowboy.” Crossing his ankles he tilts to one side and then seems to almost curtsey.

I tell him he’s got an interesting look.

“Thank you,” he replies, nodding his head. “Everyone wants to be interesting but nobody wants to pay the price. Me? You can see I paid the price. I may have even paid too much.” He laughs again. “All I can afford now are some ratty-ass sweatpants, a vest I found in a box, and a hat that’s too big for my head.”

I like this guy best of all and give him whatever cash I have left, which turns out to only be $3.72. We wish each other well and go our separate ways into the still desert night, the stars blinking on one-by-one overhead, the waxing yellow moon just clearing the jagged peaks, bathing us both in a gentler kind of light.

But soon enough the warring sun will rise again, and back at the hotel I tell the manager I’ll be checking out the next day. I take my copy of Sunrunner up to my room so I can read more about that highway I’ll be driving in the morning.

Friday, October 23, 2015

No Rattlesnakes/No Pinto Beans: Cedarvale, NM

Let’s stay in central New Mexico for one more post and add yet another piece to the picture of a region that in the 1920’s was the country’s largest producer of pinto beans. While you probably aren’t going to drive through without reason, as you might Mountainair, nor are you going to find it in most ghost town guides, as you will Claunch, Cedarvale was an important dry land farming and ranching community from the time of its establishment in 1908 until the Dust Bowl and Great Depression combined, along with overgrazing and farm consolidation, to force many of its residents to search for their fortunes elsewhere…yet again.

It was Ed Smith, William Taylor, and Oliver P. DeWolfe who chose the site for Cedarvale and requested that it be surveyed by the U.S. government. The town would be along the route of the New Mexico Central Railroad. Lots were sold through the General Land Office and a post office was soon opened. The new place was named Cedarvale after Cedar Vale, a town in Kansas from which the founders hailed and was also located in a valley with cedars (i.e., junipers).

Soon hundreds of homesteaders from other states arrived on “immigrant trains,” following the lead of Smith, Taylor, and DeWolfe. Most were looking to plant pinto beans. The relatively high altitude (6,384 ft) and short growing season of central New Mexico was good for the beans, which could be dry farmed and were in demand, particularly once World War I began and pinto beans were used to feed soldiers. Come fall, the harvest was stored in Cedarvale’s three elevators.

The population of Cedarvale would eventually reach about 500, but is now perhaps half that, and there are no functioning commercial concerns. The post office closed in 1990. But what impresses one most as they approach from the northwest along Highway 42 is the looming wreckage of the Cedarvale School. Initially, the school in Cedarvale was a typical one-room affair, but as both the town and Torrance County grew more space was needed. So, Oliver DeWolfe donated 20 acres of land and, on August 25, 1917, the Torrance County Board of Education approved a bond issuance in the amount of $5,000.00 to construct a new school.

The school was finished in 1921 and an addition made in 1935 via the Works Progress Administration (WPA). By then, the building seems like it would've been surprisingly big for the area, containing four large classrooms, each of which contained three grades and about fifty students. Children attended kindergarten through eighth grade and were then driven in the back of a truck a few miles southeast to Corona for high school. No fancy Bluebird busses here!

Aside from continuous and dire warnings about rattlesnakes, the massive gymnasium remains perhaps the most striking feature of the Cedarvale School. This was clearly a gathering place for the entire community, as well as a basketball court (complete with raw wooden backboards still in place) and, judging from the design, probably a theater. I’ve heard it hosted some bingo games, too. Despite taking the warnings fairly seriously—signs are even painted on the walls of the school—no rattlesnakes were encountered on this trip.

The school closed in 1953 and is now falling down quickly, the years finally overcoming its sturdy construction. The large wooden beams are impressive, and I’m told the Cedarvale train depot was built to the same hardy specifications. The depot no longer stands, but the materials were re-purposed and used in a home in Albuquerque which is owned by the daughter of a man who helped build both the depot and the school. I’m pleased to have been able to walk around on that historic lumber recently!

There are still many people that have fond memories of growing up in Cedarvale, as is true for virtually all the small central New Mexico towns in which the train once rattled through constantly and the whoosh of pinto beans pouring from the elevator heralded the end of one season and the approach of the next. These are sounds which may yet perhaps be heard, if only faintly, in the startling quiet of places like Cedarvale.

As I said, there ain’t much out there on Cedarvale. David Pike’s “Roadside New Mexico: A Guide to Historic Markers” has a good synopsis of the town’s founding and the history of the school. You can glean a little bit more from “The Place Names of New Mexico” and its similarly-named predecessor, “New Mexico Place Names: A Geographical Dictionary.” Beyond that, you’ll have to hope that maybe someone that was there will tell you what it was like.