Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Niles - Secondary Sources for a Railroad Town

The little sketch on the cover of Shinn's book is a great rendering of Niles as a small community tucked right into the base of the Hayward Hills, with Alameda Creek running out of Niles Canyon, crossing Mission Blvd., and running down towards the San Francisco Bay (some 12 miles away). Today you can walk the bike/pedestrian paths that run along each side of the creek starting at the mouth of Niles Canyon (the six-mile canyon road between Niles and Sunol) and ending up down at the wildlife refuge of Coyote Point. The agricultural cast of the town can be seen in the neat fruit orchards and orderly crops depicted, with the creek seen in the foreground. The Shinn property was bisected by the creek and the California Nursery Co. land was adjacent to it. The Shinn property fronted what is now Peralta Blvd. and the California Nursery Co. fronted Mission Blvd. Each had their own train depot for moving plants in and out.

Niles is the epitome of an old railroad town. It’s main street faces the 1904 depot (which was recently moved from Mission Blvd. and now faces Niles Blvd., which is parallel to Mission Blvd.) and two sets of tracks, with multiple lines running in and out of the area and railroad overpasses flanking several of the streets leading into or adjacent to the town. Railroad trestles straddle Alameda Creek and train whistles and locomotives can be heard all hours of the night and day.

I want to explore how the coming of the railroad affected Niles as a town, and how the presence of the railroad supported the nursery industry in the area (first fruit, then later ornamental plants). Thinking about taking local history and connecting it to the state and national level, I began by looking at the local level first. Henry Luna and the Pacific Locomotive Association (a volunteer group responsible for today’s running of the Niles Canyon Railway) wrote Niles Canyon Railways for Arcadia. Filled with fabulous photographs, reading this book provided specific background information and ideas for items to pull when visiting the Museum of Local History. One of the topics covered was how locals and people from San Francisco or Oakland or San Jose riding the train through Niles Canyon to picnic for the day or to camp out during the 1890s. The archivist at the Shinn Historic Park and Arboretum told me her mother’s family used to ride that train and camp out for a week each summer; she is going to see if she can find any old photographs of her mother camping for me to post!

Moving outward to encompass the state and national level, I chose Richard Orsi’s Sunset Limited: The Southern Pacific Railroad and the Development of the American West. Professor Orsi spent 20 years researching and writing his book. He explores how the Southern Pacific had the “complex impact of a large, powerful business corporation on the process of settlement, economic development, and environmental change in the frontier region (Orsi, xiii). Exactly the things I want to explore about Niles and the coming of the train! I also picked up Richard Steinheimer’s Railroading in California and the West, which was produced by the California State Railroad Museum. Dee Brown’s Hear that Lonesome Whistle Blow: The Epic Story of the Transcontinental Railroads is interesting reading; in the 2001 reprint, Brown writes about how much public and scholarly attitudes have changed towards the railroaders and the Indians between now and when he first wrote the book back in 1977. Richard Rayner’s The Associates: Four Capitalists Who Created California will balance out Orsi’s arguably rosy-lensed interpretation of the Big Four; for Raynor, they were devils incarnate with not a scrap of humanity or common decency between them. He says it was all about making money for them, nothing more, nothing less.

For the nursery industries in Niles I found Charles Howard Shinn’s Historical Sketches of Southern Alameda County. Shinn writes first-hand about Niles developing the fruit industry in the East Bay, along with Hayward and other nearby towns. The Shinn family settled in Niles in 1856 and built the tremendously successful Shinn Nursery. Charles Howard Shinn wrote the Pacific Rural Handbook, the first author to address the issue of water (or the lack thereof) and California gardens. His sister, Milicent Shinn, was the editor of the San Francisco-based literary journal Overland Monthly from 1882-1894 and the first female doctoral student at UC-Berkeley. The California Nursery Company came into being just as the Shinn Nursery was closing; I was able to find a biography of George Roeding, who bought the nursery in 1917 and saw it through the Roaring Twenties until his death in 1928. John Rock was the force behind the creation of the California Nursery Co., but I suspect most of the information I find about him will be primary and come from the UC-Riverside online newspaper database. While many who lived in the Niles area had orchards, these two large nurseries put Niles on the map in terms of horticulture in the East Bay, as well as the state. I’m also using Tangible Memories: Californians and Their Gardens, 1800-1950. Begun by 19th-century author Harry Butterfield and completed by modern writer Judith Taylor, this book explores the history of horticulture in California, and how it contributed to California’s identity as an agricultural powerhouse.

Remnants of the railroad exist in the depot and weekend excursion trains, not to mention the numerous other trains that run through the area without stopping at Niles specifically. The Shinn Park and Arboretum contain the Shinn family home and numerous other buildings, with many speciman trees remaining from the 19th century. While neighborhoods now press in on two sides of the heart of the original acreage, you still can get a feel of what it looked like a century ago. The California Nursery Company faces Niles Blvd. and it is also now a park, with a modern nursery (now going out of business) set up on part of the old growing grounds. I've heard the city of Fremont is looking for another nursery to pick up the lease. Whle the railroad and the nurseries are not the forces in Niles they were a hundred years ago, they still play vital parts of the community's economy in a different way today.

1 comment:

  1. I visited Niles as a teenager and the highlight of the trip was swimming “illegally” in the river. It is one of my fondest memories as a newly licensed driver. The feeling in the area was that of vacation and enjoyment. I also visited briefly one other time on a road trip and just loved the historic railroad and quaint small downtown area. I’ve always longed to return to the area, but never found the time to do so- yet. Therefore, I was so excited about reading your blog and actually visited it a few times prior to this assignment. I just loved reading about the trains that would bring families from San Jose to camp in the Niles area. The vacation feel of the area makes it a perfect destination for family vacation and leasurely enjoyment.

    I am a natural historian, long for Bay Area history, and once found the remnants of a railroad track behind Lake Temescal in Oakland. My research uncovered that the tracks carried trains full of vacationers from San Jose to the Claremont Hotel for the weekend in Berkeley. I suspect that the tracks that run through Niles connect to those I discovered outside of Berkeley, and I’m incredibily excited about researching this piece of Bay Area history. I’m also excited about taking another road trip to the area and looking at your historic community through your lens.

    The photos of the Shinn Park are so incredibly beautiful! It makes me want to relocate to the area. I actually recommended to my daughter that she consider moving to Niles when she returns from active military duty on the Azores Islands in Portugal. I made the recommendation before I had the pleasure of viewing the gorgeous park in the photos on your blog and before read the interesting information you wrote about the flower nurseries of the past. I can imagine in my mind’s eye that wild flowers grow abundantly as remnants of past. Excellent job!