Monday, May 10, 2010

Niles - A Railroad Town

Theodore Judah, the railroad construction engineer who initiated the Central Pacific Railroad project. He got started by building railroads back East and was obsessed with the idea of completing a transcontinental railroad.
Judah was having no luck rustling up the financing, so approached several Sacramento merchants and businessmen as potential backers. No one in San Francisco would take him seriously. Here are the Big Four (Huntington, Hopkins, Crocker and Stanford) plus some of the other investors. The reference to the Dutch Flat Swindle was a charge made by frustrated Californians that the tracks would never extend east beyond Dutch Flat.
Niles was the last railroad junction in the transcontinental railroad. From there trains ran north to Oakland and south to San Jose and then north again to San Francisco. You can also see the separate tracks laid out for Haywards and Alameda.

The Niles Station, built in 1870, with a steam engine at the standby. A restaurant was part of the depot.

The train running through Niles Canyon, between Sunol and Niles.

The second Niles Depot, built by the Southern Pacific Railroad in either 1901 or 1904 (accounts vary). The depot is now sitting in its original site but facing towards Niles Blvd. rather than the train tracks. It is part of the new Niles Town Plaza.

Another view of the depot, which still has all of its architectural features intact.

The old Robert Dollar #3 steam engine, now running tourists between Niles and Sunol on Sundays. Niles's past as a railroad junction is being used today to bring visitors and their dollars into the area. Most of Niles's businesses are also related to the past (antique stores) with art galleries and a few local service businesses thrown in.

One of the old trestles across Alameda Creek, still in use. Locals cross it all the time on foot. I don't know if they have the schedules memorized or just figure they can sprint like hell if a train appears. Bailey and I crossed it once but I didn't realize how long it takes to walk across it. We won't do it again unless we KNOW a train won't show up any minute!

One of the many railway overpasses that surround Niles; this one is the Sullivan Overpass, off of Mission Blvd. and leading to Niles Blvd. (originally First St., and then Front St., sometimes referred to as Main St.)

California was virtually cut off from the rest of the country in terms of fast or easy transportation with a transcontinental railroad being the most obvious solution to the problem. Travel existed in the form of stagecoaches, wagon trains or by ship, with time ranging from three weeks to five months, and the obstacles being hostile Indians, deadly snowstorms, debilitating heat, starvation, disease and just plain getting lost. This situation left California relatively isolated with no feasible way to transport people or goods in or out relatively quickly and safely. Two imperatives for a transcontinental road were the discovery of gold in California (1848) and the American Civil War (1860-1865). The war provided the stronger impetus: Lincoln, who signed the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862, wanted to be sure California gold and Nevada silver flowed into the Union, not the Confederacy.

While Californians grasped the concept of the road enabling people and goods to cross the Sierra Nevada quickly and safely year round, most San Franciscans were scornful of the prospect becoming a reality. Railroad construction engineer Theodore Judah finally managed to interest several Sacramento merchants in investing in the Central Pacific Railroad, four of them being Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker and Leland Stanford. Later known as “the Associates” or the “Big Four,” these businessmen eventually paid Judah $100,000 for his share of the company as he strongly disagreed with their dubious business and construction practices. Fully intending to raise the money needed to buy them out, Judah died of yellow fever after crossing the Isthmus of Panama on his way to New York.

Leland Stanford drove the last “golden spike” that signaled completion of the transcontinental road at Promontory, Utah on May 10, 1869. The western end of the road was in Sacramento and the Central Pacific needed a route to Oakland and San Francisco. They laid track from Sacramento to Stockton to Tracy through Alameda Canyon to Vallejo Mills in the fall of 1869. As previously mentioned, the subsequent depot they built there was called the Niles Station, and the railroad company—under the guise of the Contract and Finance Company—bought land near Vallejo Mills and the new depot for development. The resulting town of Niles became a railroad junction, with lines that ran north to Oakland and south to San Jose, winding around the tip of the Bay up north to San Francisco.

The building of the transcontinental road helped California “develop into a fairly well-integrated economic entity,” something the Gold Rush had failed to do (Steinheimer, 17). As historian Richard Orsi noted, the road and its multiple subsequent routes within the state “encouraged economic growth in California by reducing transportation costs, making remote lands and resources accessible, widening markets for producers, raising land values, and increasing many people’s incomes” (Orsi, Elusive Eden, 258). The road also helped change the gender balance of California’s immigrant population, which had thus far been dominated by white men. Now more women and children traveled west, opening the way for white families to settle.

Orsi also claims that the Southern Pacific Railroad, the later embodiment of the Central Pacific, “was a major force shaping agricultural, industrial, commercial and urban growth and modernization” (Orsi, Sunset Limited, xiv). Coming up: a look at how the railroad affected Niles, specifically in terms of the local orchards, vineyards and nurseries.

The sources I used for this blog were: 1) Henry Luna and the Pacific Automotive Association, Niles Canyon Railways (San Francisco: Arcadia Publishing, 2005), 2) Richard Orsi, Sunset Limited: The Southern Pacific Railroad and the Development of the American West, 1850-1930 (Berkeley: University of California Press, Ltd., 2005), 3) Richard Raynor, The Associates: Four Capitalists Who Created California (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008), 4) Richard Rice, William Bullough and Richard Orsi, The Elusive Eden: A New History of California (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1988) and 5) Richard Steinheimer, Railroading in California and the West (Santa Barbara, CA: California Department of Parks and Recreation, 1991).

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