Saturday, May 29, 2010

Niles - Using History to Set the Course for the Future

My favorite place to eat in Niles - the Nile Cafe on I Street. Run by a Vietnamese family since 2003, they specialize in wonderful sandwiches and homemade soups.
The inside of the cafe, which appears to have been a bar in a past life, is a blend of Egyptian and railroad lore; only in Niles! Charlie is up on the wall, too.
One of the controversies around the new town plaza-and they were legion-was whether or not to include a water fountain. They did, and brought the movie industry into it as well. When you spin the cylinders, a "movie" plays and can be viewed through the slits.
Visitors taking pictures of the Robert Dollar #3 steam engine from the freight room platform.
The Robert Dollar #3 steaming past on its way to Sunol.
Bailey on the lawn at the Niles Town Plaza Celebration held May 1 and May 2.
Charlie will not speak, but he is more than willing to dance!
A shot of the Robert Dollar letting off some steam before heading to Sunol.
The interior of the Southern Pacific depot has been transformed into a museum focusing on Niles as a railroad junction.
One of the groups set up at the celebration was the Railroad Gardeners society. Members set up miniature electric or steam trains throughout their gardens, combining two great interests!
Me as Charlie Chaplin! Below, the Real Deal is checking out the train depot. Only in Niles!

In 1969, the development plan for Niles was to lose the small town character and replace the 481 older homes that line Second and Third Streets with 1205 high-density apartments. A 16-member committee was formed to re-evaluate this plan and the consensus of the town members was successfully voiced: Niles would retain her small town character (yes!) and increased development would take place on 4-6 acres on the north (Southern Pacific) side of Niles Blvd. An emphasis on parks in the form of Niles Community Park (one of Bailey’s favorite places) and the Quarry Lakes area was deemed necessary to maintain a high desirability for living within the Niles Community (shades of the City Beautiful movement; again, yes!). Commercial uses were to be restricted to the downtown area and the proposed increase in housing lost by maintaining the existing Second and Third Street homes would be made up by adding 650 units at the base of Niles Canyon, spreading up into the foothills on the south side of the canyon.

The guiding principles for the overall plan were: 1) variety of lot and building size (maintain existing low-density older homes), 2) individuality of structures and architectural detail, 3) movie and railroad heritage, 4) quiet tree-canopied streets, and 5) preserve the relative isolation and self-containment by maintaining the existing overpasses connected to Niles Blvd. The development of the railroad property (which was defunct in 1976, when the 1969 plan was updated) was considered crucial to “maintaining a viable downtown commercial area.”

The 2001 Niles Concept Plan intended for Niles to revitalize as a destination point for both visitors and residents and to strengthen its pedestrian scale, its small town character and its local economy. The planning committee also wanted to see Niles as a railway junction be reactivated; this has not yet happened in terms of commercial passengers (Amtrak rushes through Niles but does not stop here) but it has in the creation of the Niles Canyon Railway and the building of the new Niles Town Plaza which is the site of the 1901/1904 restored Southern Pacific depot.

The dedicated members of the Pacific Locomotive Association painstakingly relaid by hand torn up Southern Pacific track that once ran through Niles Canyon and has built up a collection of steam and diesel engines, in addition to numerous other cars and cabooses. Maintained by volunteers at the Brightside Railyard in Niles Canyon, these trains now run tourists between Niles and Sunol on Sundays, bringing visitors and their dollars into both towns. As a result of writing this blog, I’ve joined the PLA and will be a train doecnt this coming summer. They also offer opportunities to drive the train (!) and I noticed a woman engineer running last weekend’s diesel. Hmmm…..If being a docent is fun, how cool would it be to actually RUN one of those fabulous steam engines????? Needless to say, I’m gonna check this out!

The Niles Town Plaza, recently completed after 10 years in the making, now holds pride of place across from the downtown commercial district (I’m writing this in my living room and I just heard the steam whistle blow; there must be some special excursions running today!) and will draw in visitors by its park-like setting, its depot-turned-railroad museum and its small center stage perfect for outdoor concerts. The Essanay Museum is located near the plaza and Charlie Chaplin can be seen all over town in one form or another.

What I see missing from this picture is Niles’s horticultural history. When Fremont’s mayor and others spoke at the Niles Town Plaza dedication, they all noted the significance of the railroad and (to a lesser degree) Essanay Studios in Niles’s past. They also talked about how these historical entities would be utilized to bring visitors and dollars into Niles and this makes sense. After all, the railroad and movies were created to make money in the first place; it makes perfect sense they continue to do so now. But where is Shinns’s Nurseries or the California Nursery Company in all of this? While the railroad and the film studio are well-recognized historical icons within Niles, there appears to be little effort beyond the California Nursery Company Legacy Council to bring some focus on the horticultural side of things. As I noted in last week’s blog, I believe there are many options that could be developed within the California Nursery Company Historical Park that would change this situation for the betterment of the community. I’m doing my part to change it by joining the Legacy Council and one of the first things I am going to do is help archive their multitudinous records over this coming summer. Between this, helping to make a stronger historical presence within the California Nursery Company Historical Park, and hanging out at the Brightside Railyard, I’m going to be taking an active role within the community to help shape its future by making Niles’s horticultural history take its rightful place with the railroad and with Essannay. This has all happened as a direct result of writing this blog, just another reminder on how our past is tied so strongly to our future! Thanks, Professor Ivey!

Oh, for those who want to check out what riding on the train is like, check out my video. Better yet, come and ride for yourself. Then check out the rest of Niles, including the Essanay Studio Museum and the two parks (Shinn Park over on Peralta Blvd. and the California Nursery Company Park on Niles Blvd. at the junction of Nursery Ave.) And eat the best pizza at Bronco Billy or go to my personal favorite, the Nile CafĂ© on I Street. Run by a Vietnamese family since 2003, they serve fabulous sandwiches and soups, not to mention great coffee and mochas! S’all good!

The sources I used for this blog were: 1) Fremont Planning Commission. Niles Area Plan. City of Fremont, 1976, 2) Planning Division (Fremont), Niles Concept Plan, 2001, 3) Corrie, Judy. “Niles Opens Its Town Plaza,” Tri-City Voice (27 Apr 2010): 1, and 4) Luna, Henry and the Pacific Locomotive Association. Niles Canyon Railways. San Francisco: Arcadia Publishing, 2005.


  1. Hi Julie,

    It is very evident you have put a lot of time,energy,and dilligent research into this fascinating place. You have meticulously covered many aspects of Niles in a colorful and very well written way. Between the two of us in our blogs, I think we have put the spot light on a very unique place in both California and U.S. History.

    Great job!


  2. WOOOW!! I absolutely love your photographs, and the mixture of photos and story. You've been working so hard. I was looking through some of the older posts and was amazed. You are kicking butt!
    I think it's amazing how much effort the Association has/is putting into revitalizing the train system in Niles. It's a great area, i think your photos have captured the essence of Niles. I'm fortunate enough to live a few miles from the Downtown Area, but I have not been on the train since I was very young. It's exciting to see a female conductor!! :)

    Your case study is very important to studying the Railroad and how it's changed California, the West, and the United States as a whole, as Maurice mentioned in the above comment. Bringing a national study, like the strides the RR made for society and economics, into a narrowed study makes progress so much more visible and understandable. This posting (and more importantly your hard work) proves that the RR is still able to capture excitement in the community for leisure, economic advantages, and research. The small-town charm of this story supersedes the national model of the railroad system.

  3. Julie,

    Let me add to the other comments by saying O man this blog was really great and you have persuaded me to visit Niles. I did not know about Niles. I had seen the letters NILES in passing, on the freeway, and wondered what that was about. Now I am going to look it up on the internet and schedule one my visits around one of the events that takes place there. I enjoyed looking at all the nice pictures you posted. It seems like a garden paradise fit for an afternoon of Victorian tea with ladies in long dresses and beautiful hats. I think you did an excellent job incorporating the horticulture history narrative into the whole story about this city. Because of your blog, I know that the railroad and movie industry played an important role in Niles. I also know that horticulture was also important to the city (again because of your blog). Your suggestion of the farmers market would be excellent to get people interested and to promote this town’s horticulture history.

    I also enjoy these types of small town cities because it usually gives me a glimpse of the past. I always tell my husband that when I retire I want to live in a small town with one market and no sidewalks.

    Your blog was very informative. Who knew this town had so much behind it…

    Mary Ann