They couldn’t settle down. The storm’s waves splashed water on their beaks. They sought refuge flying pond to pond. At the levee, we waited for them.
Battling the gale, their wings flapped franticly. They flew slow and low to pass. We rose up from hiding and confronted them. Too late, they attempted to veer. We, shot. In a tuff of feathers, they folded and thudded on the levee. It was point and shoot. They kept coming, singles, doubles, triples or more, until we had limits, 11 back then, the only time we did.
We tied their legs together into bundles to carry back and draped them over shoulders. They were Blue Bills or Scaups, (Aythya marila), a common San Francisco Bay duck.
Shotguns in hand, our trophies trussed, we climbed atop the gray, clods of levee dirt. Atop, faces to the full force of the gale, we scanned across Leslie Salt Company’s vast salt water evaporation pond. Bobbing in the waves, a greater prize greeted us.
From the center of the pond, a flotilla of decoys had broken lose from their mooring. The wind and white caps dragged their lead anchors across the pond’s bottom. We watched transfixed as they inched closer.
As they drew near, most revealed themselves as balsa wood blocks, painted white in the center and black at both ends, drake Blue Bill decoys. Headless, they resembled miniature cop cars.
Among them, however, was a cop car with its red light on, a wooden, hand carved decoy of royalty, a drake Canvasback, (Aythya valisineria).
The evaporation ponds were shallow but the area next to the levee was deep. It was from there the muck was dredged up and plopped down to make the levee. We had to wait until the anchors hit deep water and the decoys docked at the levee. I’d spotted the Canvasback first and claimed it as mine. Its anchor cleared the shallows, the decoy docked and passed into my ownership. With the string twirled around its neck, the anchor snug, it hugged to my chest. The dilemma was, with it, my shotgun and tassel of dead ducks, how many Blue bill decoys could I carry back.
Burdened with trophy greed, we stumbled back across the uneven terrain of the levees to our bikes parked next to Laine’s Grocery Store in Alviso. There, with a complicated balancing act, I mounted my bike, shotgun breached across the handlebars, dead ducks draped over shoulders, balsa decoys dangling on the frame and cuddled in my coat, the prize of the day; a San Francisco Bay, hand carved, wood, canvas back decoy with even a few shot shell dots to prove its service.
While everyone had heard of Alviso, had a vague notion of where it was, few visited. Its reputation put it on the, best if skipped list.
Alviso is at the southern end of San Francisco Bay. In the 1950’s is was a woebegone little town at the north end of the Santa Clara Valley, California, now referred to as Silicon Valley.
Originally the pueblo center of a vast Spanish Ranchero of bull fights and fiestas, it was where the Valley transitioned from land to estuaries and then the open San Francisco Bay. Back then, El Toro and grizzlies roamed the land, water fowl blacked the sky when disturbed and oysters and fish teemed in the estuaries and Bay.
When the gringos arrived, the Ranchero was confiscated and subdivided. The town, for a brief period, was the embarkment port from San Francisco for 49’s on their way to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Alviso shifted from being a pueblo hacienda to a bawdy, port, boom town. The 1906 earthquake and extraction of the aquifer for agriculture dropped its elevation. The city of San Jose ran their sewer line nearby to the Bay.
In the 1920’s, the vast tidal marsh estuaries between the town and the deep water of the Bay were subdivided by dredged levees into sterile, salt evaporations ponds by Leslie Salt Company. Alviso, subject to flooding, the whiff of sewage’s odor and the closure of its fish canneries became a rundown, semi-ghost town.
The town thus was excluded from the development which swept the rest of Silicon Valley. While abandoned by many and ignored by most, it remained an independent town due to its early heritage days. Its lone, elected police officer was amendable to follies forbidden elsewhere for those who did visit and it retained some of the bawdy reputation of its boom years.
A few notable restaurants thrived but the primary respectable endeavor for going there was duck hunting. The peak time for duck hunting is sunrise. Before the morning shoot and after, duck hunters frequented Alviso’s restaurants with Vahl’s, the grand dame.
It was a classic, 1950’s Italian restaurant run by a diminutive woman with flaming red dyed hair. A town matriarch, it was also whispered she oversaw a gambling den on the second floor and an annex of ill repute out back.
Duck hunters were divided into two groups, club members and freelancers. Club members leased blinds on Leslie Salt Company’s salt evaporation ponds. Around their blinds they laid rafts of decoys to attract ducks and limited shooting days to Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays to confuse the ducks. With their concealed blinds in the middle of ponds and many decoys, a limit was their common tally. The blinds were reported to provide all the comforts but, as a freelancer, I never was inside one.
The free lancer’s lot, in contrast, was a single-track rail line which left Alviso at Lane’s Grocery Store, a local landmark. From there, its elevated, embankment traversed the salt evaporation ponds to Fremont, in Alameda County. About midway, it crossed the estuary confluence of the Guadalupe and Coyote Rivers and the rail line’s humble Drawbridge, built when boats connected San Jose with the Bay, obviously long unused. There, a ghost town on wood stilts, known by that name hinted of a past reputation bawdier than Alviso’s, including oyster pirates, market duck hunters, gamblers and a famous Chinese madam.
It was legal for free lancers shoot on the rail line for the miles it passed through the salt ponds. They were forbidden, however, to trespass onto Leslie Salt Company’s levees. Free lancers were the duck hunting peons. Limited to the rail line, they did what was called, pass shooting, or sky scraping. They hid behind the rail embankment, waited until a duck wingws overhead, rose up and shot. Ducks knew to gain altitude prior to flying over the rail line. The result was pass shooters carried big gauge guns with long barrels and heavy shot shells. Their shooting was heard as muffled whoop, whoop, whoop in town, which added to Alviso’s character.
The town’s woebegone condition, colorful historic past, rumored lingering shady activities, vast open salt ponds, dredged levees and, the rail line were adventure lures to 2 boys with bikes from Santa Clara. In 1957, my friend Mike, inherited a 12 gauge, Browning, automatic shotgun when his dad died. I purchased a 16-gauge double barrel Fox shotgun with newspaper route earnings.
With shotguns straddling our bike’s handlebars, we peddled from Santa Clara in the predawn darkness, the 8 miles to Alviso. Layfette Street was the road which connected Santa Clara to Alviso. As it left town it passed smelly dairies, the Agnew state mental hospital, pear orchards, the city dump, the start of wet lands and finally. it came to the hump of Highway 237.
Highway 237 was elevated to prevent its flooding. It blocked the view of Alviso. Pushing our bikes up to crest the highway, at the stop sign, Alviso revealed itself, poor, rundown and unprotected from flooding. Lafayette Street, in a twist of irony, turned into Gold Street entering Alviso.
From Highway 237, we coasted down Gold Street to Elizabeth Street and Laine’s Grocery Store, a relic from the bawdy past. There, we parked our bikes and trekked the adjacent rail line’s creosote ties to enter a surreal world.
It was a world created by Leslie Salt Company who built the levees to create evaporation ponds by dredging. The Bay’s saline water was shuttled from pond to pond as the salinity increased with evaporation until the water turned pink. At the end, evaporation created a pond crusted with salt which was scraped into a silver-white crystal mountain for packaging.
From the rail lines secure, high rock embankment, we viewed the cord grass and pickle weed estuaries, the sterile gray colored salt evaporation ponds, the dry and the dusty gray dredged levees which formed. It was a spiderweb of levees and ponds to the Bay.
On the right, following the rail line, were high wire, electric transmission towers with concrete feet anchored in tidal muck. They were connected by wood elevated cat walks, bleached grey and often missing a plank.
In the distance were dim lines of civilization, the General Motors plant in Fremont, the blimp hanger of Moffett Field in Mountain View and next to it the vast complex of Lockheed Missal Company, where the dull roar of rocket engines occasionally thundered. The hills of the Diablo Range rose above the horizon, clearly visible unlike from at home viewed through smog's haze.
From the rail line, Mike and I traipsed onto a selected levee past posted Leslie Salt’s, red and white signs forbidding access. While free lancers, we were poachers. Hiding from Leslie Salt’s wardens enhanced our hunting adventure.
With shotguns lugged in hands, we gamboled over the irregular levee terrain to a suitable hunting spot, preferably on a Monday, Tuesday, Thursday or Friday. Settled, we shivered awaiting the sun’s rise over the Diablo Range. With daylight, if ducks came toward us, we crouched low and hid our faces. Once in shooting range, we stood up and shot. Usually we missed as they flew high, fast and veered on seeing us.
Levee outlaws, we were a status above rail line pass shooters. We envied the aristocrat hunters in blinds, surrounded by decoys. We were lucky to shoot a duck or two. They usually shot limits.
The one time better than dawn for duck hunting is when high wind blows. It needs be a real storm, white caps not only on the Bay but on Lesli Salt’s ponds. The one which occurred in November 1958, when Mike and I were 14 remains in fresh my memory now when 75.
The Canvasback, decoy trophy of that day, is a keepsake which followed me through life despite many moves. It sits on my fire place mantel and brings back the Alviso of my youth, once a special place for me.
It wasn’t until middle age I experienced a tinge of remorse at the owner’s loss. In answer to him, surely dead now, I can say, I took good care of it.
I recently re-visited Alviso. Unlike during my youth, despite its drawbacks, development has finally seeped into it. It’s now an annexed part of the City of San Jose, the city which abused it so long. Laine’s was still there but closed and decrepit. It collapsed in a heap, shortly after my visit. The tidal areas are still misused to produce salt but are now part of a national park. I didn’t walk out on the rail line to a levee. Park status has resulted in swarms of visitors.
Vahl’s is still there and open. I stopped there for dinner. A niece of the little, red dyed haired, matron operates it. Her living quarters are on the second floor. The rear annex is gone. While its 1950’s Italian restaurant décor and fare have been faithfully retained, it’s a hangout for electronics engineers. At the bar, I reminisced as an old man is wont to do about my Alviso.
After dinner, I walked to my car. I wanted to retrace the route once biked to the home of my youth in Santa Clara.
Opening the car door, I looked back at Vahl's aglow in neon lights. I understood, Alviso was no longer my Alviso. It belongs to others.