Culture Clash, or why the Americans and Japanese build cars differently

I just listened to an excellent This American Life episode on the NUMMI plant in my hometown of Fremont, California. The NUMMI plant used to be the General Motors plant, built in 1962 but closed down in 1982. A Toyota-GM joint venture was launched, and the plant reopened in 1984 as the New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. The NUMMI staff went to Japan to learn the Toyota Way, and it worked: the NUMMI plant was far more productive than the old GM plant was, even though they were largely employing the same people.

For a variety of social reasons, however, GM couldn’t reproduce on its own the success of the NUMMI joint venture. GM pulled out of NUMMI last June, and Toyota later decided to shut down the plant. The last car rolled off the line the day before yesterday—yes, on April Fools Day.

But really: listen to the podcast. It’s very well done.

A Tale of Two Ghost Towns

Today the San Francisco Chronicle published an article about Drawbridge, the ghost town in southern San Francisco Bay that I blogged about last month. Author Carolyn Jones reports that Drawbridge, which is off-limits to the public, is slowly sliding down into the mud. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers Drawbridge as part of the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge, is neither promoting nor preventing decay: they’re simply letting Nature take its course. However, I have no doubt that vibrations from the frequent rail traffic—a dozen or more Amtrak trains zip past every day—hasten the deterioration of the buildings.

The Fish & Wildlife’s approach differs from that used at the famous Sierra Nevada ghost town of Bodie (also the subject of a recent article in the Chronicle), where the State Park Service is actively keeping the town in a state of “arrested decay”; that is, repairing the existing buildings with original materials, so that it continues to look the same year after year.

Today’s article also points out how we are creating modern ghost towns: empty office parks in Silicon Valley and half-built housing developments in the Central Valley, all victims of the recession. Somehow I doubt history will look back upon these with the same romanticism as Drawbridge and Bodie.

Today is Niles Canyon Ghost Day!

You might think that a planned suburb like Fremont, California wouldn’t be haunted, but you’d be wrong. Niles, which became part of Fremont in 1956, has its very own ghost:

In 1883 a historian commented that Niles “has nothing much to boast of” but its beautiful location, which justified a promise of a thriving town. In the 1850s it was “Gopher Town”. In the 1860s a mill. In 1877 it was fourteen acres bound by two railroads and a creek. It was then that the railroad bought two hundred acres and laid out the present town. In 1910 it had a population of 1,500. By 1914 Niles had justified its promise, and had three churches, three hotels, a bank and every appearance of a thriving town.

It also has a ghost—perhaps the only one in Washington Township. Many years ago, on the twenty-sixth of February, a young girl was killed in the canyon. Every year, on that day, she appears on the roadside, begging to be taken to her home in San Francisco. Invariably, when her kind deliverers reach the Dumbarton Bridge toll gate, she is gone. Drivers who go on to her San Francisco address are told that the same thing happens each year. Credence ranges from those who openly scoff to those who fear to drive through the canyon on February twenty-sixth.

History of Washington Township, 2nd edition, 1950

Several more versions of the story can be found online: some give her name as Lowerey, some call her the “White Witch”, some say she was killed on her wedding day in a fall from a carriage. I was most amused by a comment proclaiming the Niles Ghost a hoax (well of course the ghost is a hoax… you were expecting a real ghost?).

As it turns out, The Vanishing Hitchhiker is a well-known urban legend, first studied in 1942 by folklorists Richard Beardsley and Rosalie Hankey. There are four main story lines of the Vanishing Hitchhiker; the Niles Canyon Ghost is an example of story “A”, the most common variant. Forty-nine versions of the story “A” were recorded across America! I somehow doubt that the excerpt above is the earliest print record of the Niles Ghost, but I haven’t had time to research it further.

Next post: more about Niles, the canyon, and how Charlie Chaplin filmed his first movies here before moving to Hollywood.

Drawbridge, California

There are many ghost towns in the American West, but perhaps just one where thousands of commuters zoom past every day. It is Drawbridge, in south San Francisco Bay, and it sits directly on the Amtrak line between Fremont and San Jose. I went to high school in Fremont, and I remember hearing rumors of a ghost town down on the railroad tracks. In fact, at the time it wasn’t yet a ghost town: the last resident didn’t leave until 1979. I wish I had gone out there while I still had the chance: today Drawbridge is strictly off-limits.

Drawbridge was named for the two railroad drawbridges that used to span Mud Creek Slough and Coyote Creek Slough. The hamlet’s heyday was in the early 1900s, when there were two hotels and the trains stopped five times a day. By the 1960s only a few residents were left and the trains no longer stopped for passengers. Vandalism grew common after the San Jose Mercury incorrectly stated that Drawbridge was entirely abandoned. The last two residents were Nellie Dollin and Charles Luce. Nellie left in 1974 after tiring of scaring off vandals with her shotgun. Luce was bought out by the US Fish & Wildlife Service in 1979. Both their cabins burned down, probably by vandals.

Perhaps two dozen wooden buildings remain, in various states of decay. The only way to see Drawbridge today is from an Amtrak or Capitol Corridor train. For the best views, sit in the upper level of the carriage. There are buildings on either side, but they will zip past very quickly so have your camera ready.

Update: A Tale of Two Ghost Towns

Further reading:

Fremont, USA

I grew up in a city called Fremont. It was the Bay Area’s first model suburb, created in 1956 by gluing together the towns of Centerville, Niles, Irvington, Mission San Jose and Warm Springs. My family moved to Fremont in 1961 to a duplex on the edge of old town Centerville. At that time there were still rural areas between the five towns, mostly planted with walnuts and cauliflower. My mother would occasionally take me walking to Haller’s pharmacy around the corner, or if I were really lucky, to the Cloverdale Creamery for ice cream. Two years later we moved to a newly-built ranch house in the same subdivision: closer to the freeway for Dad’s commute, but farther from old town. Time passed, I upgraded from Mattos Elementary to Centerville Jr High to Washington High. By the time I graduated and moved to Berkeley for college, all the open space between Centerville and Irvington was gone, covered with houses.

In the years since I left, Fremont has undergone a remarkable social transformation. The ethnic and religious demographics have completely changed: Fremont is now home to the largest Afghan community in the United States, and the second-largest Sikh community. This is why I am eager to see the new documentary Fremont, U.S.A — A City’s Encounter with Religious Diversity, produced by the Pluralism Project at Harvard University. I will write about the film in a future post.

Here is what the East Bay Express has to say about “Fremont, USA”.