Monday, April 12, 2010

Niles in Googleland

I found this old Niles brick in one of the local antique shops. It turns out a brick-making operation once took place at the mouth of Niles Canyon just a hop, skip and a jump from my front door.
I tried posting with photos set in correct spaces but Blogger would not "read" them and forced me to add them, with the result that they are all stacked at the top of the blog. I was not able to place the captions where they need to go, so made them bold to set them apart from regular text. You'll have to read the caption and then scroll up to the top to view the image. This totally sucks; there has to be a way to embed the photos but I haven't figured it out! Blogger is also resisting adding spaces between paragraphs consistently. I've gone back in and corrected spatial issues only to have them revert back once the blog is posted. Frustrating because the blog looks sloppy and I really dislike not being able to post everything "just so." That whining done with, I'm actually enjoying the blogging experience and hope to figure out how to post my own video created on my MacBook.

The Local Museum of History (the home of Fremont’s historical society) is located in the nearby Mission San Jose neighborhood and is open the second Saturday and Sunday of each month, in addition to Wednesdays and Fridays. In reality it was only open this Saturday, but all about that in next week’s blog when we officially hit the archives. I did spend a solid five hours researching the famed California Nursery Company on Saturday but also had a little bit of time on Friday to Google Niles. This was very helpful as the two main topics I plan to research are Niles’s railroading and nursery histories, and I located websites for each subject that provided useful background and contact information-- the Niles Canyon Railway-Pacific Locomotive Association ( and the California Nursery Company Legacy Council (
Caption for Niles Letters on the Hillside
The gigantic letters spelling out “Niles” on the hillside overlooking the town are not a nod to Niles’s past as an early Hollywood; rather, they were first set up in 1926 as a combination of boosterism and a low-tech location beacon for pilots. Today’s beleaguered post office can be seen in the foreground on the right-hand side of H St.

When Googling it is best to search using “Niles California” as keywords to avoid hits on other places named Niles. This strategy did not help me with the Online Archive of California, however. The first hit there was for a Dorothea Lange photograph collection and the files highlighted in helpful yellow were all of the Nile River in Egypt! A second Dorothea Lange collection contained one photo of a Japanese gardener working in Niles; this particular collection was focused on Japanese-American internment during WWII. This one I may go back and take a closer look at since both first and second-generation Japanese were a strong component in California’s horticultural history, one of the state and national-level contexts I want to connect Niles to as a local community.

One general helpful hit was the Niles Main Street website (
The homepage is one large window with “Save Our Post Office” leading off announcements of upcoming regular and special events such as train rides, an art show, the Niles Dog Show (I took Bailey last year and she loved it; she could care less about the hundreds of other dogs there—she was too busy reveling in the hundreds of other dog lovers more than happy to pet her!) and the seriously huge annual Niles Antique Fair and Flea Market.

The demand to “Save Our Post Office” has been going on ever since the U.S. Postal Service announced last year they were planning on closing it due to the bad economy. The fight has been valiant (locals stood outside in rainy and cold weather during the Christmas mailing rush and solicited hundreds of signatures, plus there have been numerous articles published and town hall meetings held) but it doesn’t look good. The last I heard, the Mission San Jose post office (also slated for closure) had been saved, but the jury was still out concerning Niles. When I was at the Local Museum of History, I read that the first Niles post office was run out of the local general store, and moved around depending on who was serving as postmaster. The potential loss of the post office is another reminder that Niles does not live in an isolated bubble, despite the nostalgic look and feel of this small town.

Caption for the Robert Dollar Steam Engine
Volunteers overseeing the hitching up of the historic Robert Dollar #3 steam engine to a short string of cars on their way to Sunol. Standing next to one of these behemoths while it is under full throttle totally explains the assigned moniker of the “Iron Horse!”

The Niles Canyon Railway website listed Sunday, 4/11, as a steam engine day so I headed on foot over to the station about 20 minutes before 11:10, when the first train of the day was scheduled to run. The weather was looking pretty iffy and no one was milling around yet waiting to take a train ride out to Sunol and back. The train showed up 25 minutes late—one of the Golden Spike volunteers said the temperamental steam engines often run late, whereas the diesels arrive and leave right to the minute—which gave me a chance to talk to several of the volunteers from the various organizations (Pacific Locomotive Association, Golden Spike, and Niles Coach Service) that make the Niles Canyon Railway a going concern. I shot about 10 minutes of video and arranged to go back and interview everyone properly at a later date. I also got sucked into the excitement of it all and ended up volunteering to be a history docent on the train rides set for this coming summer; I just love those steam engines! The coming of the railroad is another larger context for Niles’s history and also relates directly to the success of the town’s horticultural past.

Caption for the couple in Victorian costume
I’m not sure what the story was for this stylish couple; they look like they are on their way to a 19th-century picnic. It is possible they are volunteers dressing to look the part; Niles Canyon was a popular picnic site by the mid-1870s.

One of the documents I ran across in my Google search for Niles was the 2001 Niles Concept Plan written by the Planning Division of Fremont. It made for very interesting reading and centered around how to strengthen the town economically while respecting its historic past as a railroad town. Part of the plan was to build a new plaza in conjunction with the Main Street stores and the Niles Canyon Railway train rides. The plaza was just completed a few weeks ago after 9 years in the planning and a Grand Opening is set for the first weekend in May.

Caption for the storefront window with train model
One of the local antique stores focuses on Niles and its strong connection to railroading. This model set is on permanent display and the hills overlooking Niles can be seen as a reflection in the plate glass window.

Caption for Plaza Celebration sign
This sign announcing the opening of the new plaza was posted in numerous storefront windows up and down the shopping district. Note the emphasis on family-style entertainment, part of the nostalgic small-town feel so prevalent here.

1 comment:

  1. Julie do you still live in Niles? I love your writing. Are you interested in connecting with Washington Township Museum of Local History? We love your talent and enthusiasm for local history. Also what is the A-e Photographs of Washington Township and where is it located?

    Patricia Schaffarcyzk