A Brief History of Niles
Niles was established in the 1850's and was a junction point of the Southern Pacific Railroad lines from Oakland to San Jose and southern coastal points. Vallejo's Mill was the first flourishing flour mill constructed and completed in this country. It was run by water conducted in a long flume from Alameda Creek. Niles at one time was noted for the location of the California Nursery, the largest nursery in California, with the largest rose plantation in the state.
In 1912, Essanay Studios was at the height of its movie making fame. The studio, owned by Broncho Billy, made famous movies of the time starring Charlie Chaplin, Wallace Berry, Chester Conklin and Ben Turpin. Many cowboy adventures were filmed through Niles Canyon and along the main streets of Niles.
Today it is famous for its Wildflower Festival, Charlie Chaplin and Essanay Days Festival, its annual Antique Fair, and its historic preservation and economic revitalization with the California Main Street Program. Watch Niles as the community continues to show off a captivating historic character, a family atmosphere, and a friendly shopping experience. We hope your visit to Niles is a pleasant one. Come back and visit us often.
History of the Niles Depot
The Niles Depot is the second structure used as the Niles depot and was built by the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1901. It replaced an earlier depot that had occupied the site since 1870. The original Niles depot included a restaurant and saloon for the convenience of train passengers. In 1900, Southern Pacific instituted a "dry law", closing all of the saloons in railroad eating-houses. Without the bar, the restaurant closed in mid-1901, and the depot - a relic of a country with fewer rules - closed soon after. The building was sold and part of it was moved a few blocks away, and it is now a private residence in Niles.
The Town of Niles, CA was important to the railroad since it was the junction of two major rail lines. One line went to San Jose, the other to Tracy, Stockton and Sacramento. The completion of the railroad through Niles Canyon linked the San Francisco Bay Area with the rest of the transcontinental railroad. The more famous golden spike at Promontory, Utah only connected Sacramento to the East, so it was not a coast-to-coast railroad until the line through Niles Canyon was finished.
The "new" Niles depot featured colonnade style architecture. It was built of redwood cut in the Santa Cruz Mountains and milled in Southern Pacific sawmills. Unlike most of the other colonnade style depot the railroad built between 1901 and 1913, the columns in the Niles depot were topped by ornate carved wood decoration (the columns are topped by ornate Victorian capitals and an elaborate entablature). Of about thirty colonnade style depots built, less than half exist today and the Niles depot is the only survivor having the ornate carved wood decoration.
During earlier years, the depot saw eight to ten passenger trains each day, along with many freight trains. Before World War I, Niles became the home of Essanay Studios.
Many early films were produced in Niles including most of "Bronco Billy" Anderson's westerns. The most famous films were those starring the little English actor, Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin's "Little Tramp" character first appeared on the streets of Niles The depot saw several other famous, and not-so-famous stars arrive and depart.
The town was quiet after the studio moved to Hollywood. Life settled into the routine of a farming community. On Sunday afternoons and evenings, in mid weather, the local concert band played in front of the station while children romped, parents listened sedately, and medicine men hawked their wares. While the music blared and the steam engines took on water, a few of the male patrons held short but spirited sessions of thirst quenching at two handily situated bars, according toJohn "Nick" Pinna, station agent at Niles from 1956 to 1963. "Picnic trains ran until about 1950," he says. "They'd arrive about ten a.m. and deposit their pleasure-bound riders upstream. After that they'd return to rest in the clear on the caboose track until about 4:30 p.m.
Local rail passenger service began to decline before World War II. The last regularly scheduled passenger service to serve the Niles depot was discontinued on January 22, 1941, but the depot remained open as a freight agency.
On September 14, 1974, the Public Utilities Commission granted SP permission to close the Niles depot. SP had tried to close the depot in 1972 but was rebuffed by opponents of the depot closure.
When Southern Pacific announced it would demolish the depot in 1981, a grass roots, volunteer-based effort began to raise funds to save and restore it (Fremont contributed $25,000 to move it). Their efforts paid off. Community members have worked tirelessly for nearly two decades to restore and maintain the Niles depot.
On May 16, 1982, the depot was moved from its original location to a new site on Mission Boulevard and work began on the restoration.
In addition to the original Niles depot and "new" Niles depot being moved, the Western Pacific Irvington depot was moved onto the hillside in 1955, south of where the Niles depot now sits . With the Southern Pacific freight depot still standing in its original spot, Niles is one of the few towns that has four historic depots.
The depot, along with the grounds, is cared for and operated by the Niles Depot Historical Foundation. The foundation is charged with the continued restoration and development of the railroad museum. Major restoration of the depot was completed in December of 1988. The Niles Depot Historical Foundation is continuing care for the surrounding grounds.
- Railroad Magazine, William G. Wullenjohn, Sr., Tom Nelson, Robert Schott, Niles Depot Historical Foundation