The Niles Canyon Ghost Revealed

I have written previously about the Niles Canyon Ghost, who supposedly has appeared on Niles Canyon Road every February 26 since 1938 (or 1940), trying to hitchhike to San Francisco. The couple who stop to pick her up proceed to the Dumbarton Bridge Toll and pay for three people (before 1951, the bridge toll was based on how many were in the car), but the tolltaker says they’ve paid for too many: the woman has vanished from the back seat. Those who continue onto the address in San Francisco meet a sad woman who says that the same thing happens every year. The ghost is the spirit of her daughter, who was killed in an accident on Niles Canyon Road, and on the mantel is a photograph of the woman who flagged them down.

This story is now known to be one of many variants of the “Vanishing Hitchhiker,” a common urban legend that was first researched in 1942 by American folklorists Richard Beardsley and Rosalie Hankey.

As a teenager, I had first read about the Ghost in The History of Washington Township—indeed, that was usually the reason I opened the book. But I also enjoyed studying the old maps on the endpapers, trying to figure out where our modern-day suburban house would be. The story of the Ghost appears in the 1950 second edition, but not in the scarce 1904 first edition. I very much doubted that the compilers of the History invented the story. Where did it come from? One day, I thought, I would research this and find the truth—but others have beaten me to it (A Place Called Sunol, by Connei DeGrange and Allen DeGrange, DeGrange Publishing, 1995, pp115-116). The first detective work was done by Tri-Valley Herald reporter Liam Pleven in 1991 (Tri-Valley Herald, 26 February 1991), with further sleuthing by Victoria Christian (Around Sunol, 26 February 2007). The true story of the Niles Canyon Ghost can now be told.

The story was probably invented about 1942 by a local journalist as a ploy to sell newspapers. Nothing much happened for the next few years, but in 1947 radio announcer Mel Ventner repeated the story and it began to capture the public’s attention. On 24 February 1950, an article about the Ghost appeared in the Township Register. Two days later on the 26th, many drivers reported seeing a white figure waving from a railroad trestle: it was 19-year-old Clarence Chivers wearing a white sheet. Alameda Country sheriff’s deputies William R. Rose and E. B. Pavon responded and fired warning shots, then proceeded to arrest him. The next day, one newspaper led with the headline “Shivers Shakes as Sheriff Shoots” (although my headline would have been “Chivers Shivers as Sherriff Shoots”). In 1952, officers arrested a 22-year-old for a similar prank, and reported that twenty or thirty kids were hiding along the roadway. Clarence Chivers passed away in 2007 at the age of 75.

It’s no surprise, then, that the 1950 edition of The History of Washington Township, published during the heyday of the Niles Canyon Ghost, would include the story. Tonight raise your glass to the memory of the Ghost, invented on this day about 68 years ago.

Update: In October 2021, almost ten years after I posted this, I received an email from Mike Chivers, nephew of the late Clarence Chivers. Mike confirmed that his uncle Clarence did indeed stage the legendary prank, and often recounted it to family members over the years. Mike also reports another interesting angle: Deputy W. R. Rose, who arrested Chivers in 1950, was the son of another Sheriff William Rose who responded to a carriage crash in Niles Canyon in the late 19th century. Rose found the overturned carriage and a drowned horse, but no human remains were ever recovered.

Today is not the day to pick up a hitchhiker in Fremont

If you’re driving through Niles Canyon in Fremont today, don’t pick up a hitchhiker—unless you like talking to spectres. For today, February 26, is Niles Canyon Ghost Day, when a young woman will flag you down and ask to be driven to San Francisco. But by the time you arrive at the Dumbarton toll plaza, she will be gone.

Alas, the story is just a variant of the well-known “Vanishing Hitchhiker” myth. Too bad, for Niles Canyon is the perfect place for ghosts—steep canyon walls, hardly any development, two-lane highway, old railroad trestles—all of the classic features for a ghost story.

The coolest canyon in town

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.

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.