I grew up in Santa Clara, California in the 1950’s before it became the epicenter of Silicon Valley. Then the Valley was mostly agricultural.
The Valley lays between the Diablo Range to the east and the Santa Cruz Mountains to the west. To the north is Alviso, the southern end of San Francisco Bay.
Alviso long ago was a short-lived boom town port with the arrival of the 49’ers. The 1906 earthquake, flooding, silting and San Jose’s rail connections with San Francisco and Oakland left it bypassed with a few grand Victorian homes and many shanties.
It could have recovered from these setbacks into an upscale water town which it attempted with upscale restaurants such as Val’s but as the low spot of Santa Clara County it was at the end of the waste lines of San Jose and Santa Clara which used gravity to dispose of their sewage into the Bay.
The vast tidal marsh areas between Alviso and the deep water of the Bay were restructured to make salt. Leslie Salt Company subdivided the marsh into large evaporation ponds. They shuttled salt water from pond to pond as salinity increased until dried out and scooped into a crystal white-mountain.
Alviso missed the frantic pace of development which swept the rest of the area as it transitioned into Silicone Valley. It was a desolate forgotten backwater sinking into the Bay. The sterile salt ponds and pungent odor of sewage ponds made Alviso the butt of Santa Clara County jokes.
The rail line through Alviso, the town’s woebegone character, vast salt ponds, dredged levees, land’s end where the open Bay began where adventure attractions to a boy like me. The ghost town of Drawbridge, high steel electric transmission towers and decrepit cat walks over tidal marsh were added lures.
For adults, duck hunting and Val’s, an upscale Italian restaurant with illegal card club above and small brothel in back were the reasons some came to Alviso.
The duck hunters were of two types. There were club members with blinds leased from Leslie Salt Company and free lancers.
The club members built blinds in the ponds they leased which were accessed by their boat. Around these they laid out rafts of decoys to lure ducks into shooting range.
They were Alviso’s aristocrat hunters and ate breakfast at Val’s before the morning shoot and dinner after unless diverted to the other Alviso attractions.
The free lancers lot was the rail line. It was legal to walk the rail line with a shot gun. Why this was legal but it was not legal to walk the expropriated levees was beyond my legal expertise.
The rail line left Alviso at Lane’s grocery store, a local landmark. From there it ran to Fremont. About midway it crossed the confluence of the Guadalupe and Coyote Rivers where there was a drawbridge.
Free lancers shooting on the rail line did what was called “pass shooting”. They hid and waited until a duck winged overhead. Ducks learned to gain altitude prior to passing over the rail line. The result was pass shooters carried big guns with long barrels and heavy shot shells to reach high. Pass shooters were the pond less peons of duck hunting.
In Santa Clara my friend Mike inherited a 12 gauge Browning automatic shotgun when his dad died. I had a 16 gauge double barrel Fox shotgun. The two of us went to Alviso first on bikes and when older by car to hunt ducks.
The peak time for duck hunting is sunrise. In the dark, we parked next to Lane’s grocery store, adjacent to the rail line and walked the line until it met one of Leslie Salt’s levees which made a spider web stretching to Land’s End on the Bay. There we walked past a posted Leslie Salt, red and white sign forbidding access.
Mike and I were levee poachers. Trespassing and hiding from Leslie Salt wardens enhanced our hunting adventures.
Once settled on a levee we talked and shivered while awaiting the sun’s rise over the Diablo Range. With daylight, we crouched low and hid our faces if ducks came toward us. Once in shooting range we stood up and shot as they attempted to veer left or right or even back pedal in their fright. Usually we missed.
While the ponds were shallow the area next to the levee was deep as it was from this the levee was formed. When we shot at a duck we tried to shoot so it would land on the levee or at least on the side of the levee from which the wind was blowing. If instead a duck landed in a pond downwind we frantically threw clumps of levee dirt to create waves to force it to shore, usually to no avail.
On the levee, we were a status above rail line pass shooters even if outlaws. We still looked out at the blinds in the center of the ponds surrounded by decoys with envy. They never had to throw clumps of dirt to retrieve a duck. We were lucky to shoot a duck or two. They with their comfortable blinds, decoys and skiffs usually shot their limit which then was eleven.
There was one time better than dawn for duck hunting. This was when a high wind storm blew. It needed to be a real storm with white caps not only on the Bay but out on the ponds. One occurred in November 1960. Mike and I raced to Lane’s, parked, scrambled out on the rail line and trespassed to our favorite levee. The wind and rain blew hard. The ducks couldn’t settle down. Waves splashed water on their beaks. They sought refuge from pond to pond.
On an obvious flight path, facing the wind, we crouched, stood up and shot over and over until we both had limits, the only time we ever did. We tied their legs together and draped them as a bundle over our shoulders to carry back as we climbed on top of the levee to leave.
As we faced the gale wind we saw a miniature flotilla drifting toward us. Decoys were driven by the wind from the pond blind to the levee. Most were cheap balsa wood blocks painted white in the center and black at both ends without a head to lure blue bill ducks. They looked like miniature cop cars bobbing in the waves as they drifted toward us. One, however, was a cop car with its red light on, a canvas back decoy.
I waited eagerly as it drifted closer with its lead anchor dragging. It finally bobbed into my grasp, the real McCoy; a San Francisco Bay, hand carved, wood, canvas back decoy with even a few shot shell dots to prove its service. I lugged it home as the trophy of the day.
It is a keepsake which has followed me through life despite many moves. It sits now on my fire place mantel and brings back the Alviso of my youth which few then knew or cared about. It wasn’t until middle age I experienced a tinge of remorse at the owner’s loss. In answer to him who is surely dead now, I can say I took good care of it.
I recently visited Alviso. Unlike during my youth, development has finally seeped up to it despite its drawbacks. The tidal areas are still misused to produce salt but are now part of a national park.
I did not walk out on the rail line to a levee. Park status has resulted in swarms of visitors seeking the beauty of the marsh, the quaintness of a town bypassed, the vast open areas where tide lands meet land’s end and the numerous water fowl which far exceed the numbers of my duck hunting youth.
It is no longer a lonely place of youthful poaching adventure. It is no longer my Alviso.
Author Notes: Quack, quack