The coolest canyon in town

by david on 22 May 2010

My home town of Fremont, California is a modern creation, formed in 1956 from five towns in the old Washington Township: Centerville, Niles, Irvington, Mission San Jose and Warm Springs. My village was Centerville, but Niles easily wins the contest for Most Historically Significant.

And that history all revolves around the canyon. Very picturesque, and still mostly unimproved. Two flour mills were built at the mouth of the canyon in 1850 and 1856 by the Vallejo family, owners of the Mexican land grant covering southern Alameda County. Some of the mill foundations survive and are a California registered landmark.

A railway was built through the canyon in 1869: no less than the famed Transcontinental Railroad on its way to the western terminus in Alameda (although a new route through Benicia bypassed Niles Canyon in 1879). Until Interstate 680 was built in the mid-1970s, Niles Canyon was our road from Fremont to Pleasanton and Livermore. I particularly remember several family expeditions through the canyon on the way to the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton.

Water politics also have played a big part in the canyon’s history. Alameda Creek, the river that runs through the canyon, flooded periodically until the creek was channeled in the 1960s. The Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct intersects Niles Canyon at the far end, underneath the Sunol Water Temple. Several tributaries of Alameda Creek are still owned by the San Francisco Water District and are off-limits to the public.

Niles Canyon also has its very own ghost—how many towns can say that?

Niles’s biggest claim to fame, however, is as a center of filmmaking. Chicago-based Essanay Studios, tired of how the long midwest winters limited the filming season, opened a studio in Niles in 1913. Essanay’s co-owner was Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson, the world’s first cowboy movie star. Many of his 376 Broncho Billy movies were filmed in Niles Canyon, where the scenery and the railroad line made it easy to create a “wild west” feel. In 1914 Essanay hired Charlie Chaplin and filmed several of his movies in Niles Canyon, including, most famously, The Tramp. Chaplin left Essanay in 1915 and the studio closed the following year, but by then Niles had already been eclipsed by Hollywood as the center of the movie industry: filmmakers preferred both Southern California’s warmer weather and brighter sunlight, and the proximity to a major city.

Then as now, Niles is rather isolated by the wide channel of Alameda Creek as it exits the canyon. Perhaps because of this, more than a few 19th-century buildings survive in the town center. Recently, the old railroad station has been restored. Give Niles a visit the next time you’re in Fremont.

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