Sunday, March 24, 2013

Waking up in Niles

Twenty miles, heading toward Palomares Canyon and I'm waking up fast. The last hundred yards in Niles Canyon didn't look familiar. Did I miss the turn? A little panic sets in. The shoulder is narrow, a tiny buffer against fast determined traffic. A concrete barrier on the right, like a fence. No escape. Where am I?

Double back to check that last undercrossing, a narrow passage under a train bridge. There are multiple bridges like it on this road. Was it The One At The Turn? It was not.

Cross the lanes again, retracing my steps. Ah. Just ahead a familiar shady intersection, the bottom of Palomares. It was only another hundred yards up the road. Breathing again. Occasional disorientation with panic. It lodges in those little attention gaps and hijacks them.

Reaching this point a few minutes earlier I'd relaxed, let my guard down. Niles is one of those familiar places I've never been to. It sits at the base of the hills, the mouth of the canyon where Alameda Creek runs toward the bay.
Mission Boulevard in Niles District, Fremont, California.
These days a detour off the main road is how you get to the town. And hardly anyone does make the detour; hence the sign. This morning I'm in a hurry to get to a bigger, more populated place. Just like the cars. Everyone needs reminding to visit Niles.

If I had been awake a few minutes earlier it might not have mattered. The view doesn't inspire even a cyclist to put a foot down and explore. Visible traces of the past? They're starting to disappear. Niles was always more of an intersection than anything else. A way through.

To get here you cross the tracks at Nursery Avenue. Here was the largest commercial nursery west of the Rockies. Palm trees were their specialty but citrus and nuts and grapevines all thrived here. Cattle grazed on the hillsides. A hundred years ago the landscape and weather were so beautiful that people came from miles around to sit down and have a picnic.

And this wide newly-paved road, Mission Boulevard leading south to Mission San Jose. It used to be dirt, of course. To reach the mission from the north or east you passed through Niles. Along the way you'd probably stop here for water, flowing in the creek as well as underground. The white sign in the photo sits near a once-prolific source, Mayhew's Sulphur Spring.

Aside from roads and water, the type of intersection Niles is most famous for can't be found along this road. You have to follow the arrow on the sign. To the train tracks. Lots and lots of them.

Take the Sullivan Underpass into the historic town of Niles
That narrow, disorienting spot in the canyon is right around where the Transcontinental Railroad was truly completed. The golden spike was driven in Utah, connecting Sacramento to New York City via Omaha. But the final spike between Sacramento and San Francisco Bay was driven 4 months later, in Niles Canyon in September 1869. It was made of iron, harder and more practical than gold.

In more ways than one Niles is how I got here. It's where my grandfather grew up. I wish there were some family stories involving this place but they're kind of missing. They were never told.

It's easy to guess that the Transcontinental Railroad brought my great-grandparents to this spot. If you landed in a place with good weather, plentiful water, and work then you stayed put. My great-grandfather looked for vineyard work at Mission San Jose. Finding none he tried his hand at the railroad. The rural beauty that has mostly been paved over, that was the scenic backdrop of their lives.

But imagine having to make your own soap. And it was not good soap!

His son, my grandfather, was more interested in trains than the old agricultural way of life. Trains flowed through Niles day and night on their way to San Jose and Oakland. As a boy he would have seen and heard them constantly. Progress, money, people. He went to work for the Southern Pacific and became a tough and determined engineer, not a teller of stories.

In its heyday around 1910 the town had aspirations to be more, or at least bigger. According to the folks in Niles it was the Next Big Thing! But the explosive growth of railroads had already peaked. So Niles stayed a little town, eventually bypassed. Until it wasn't even a town but a district of sprawling suburban Fremont. If you want to see the railroad museum at the old depot, come on Sunday.

My grandfather migrated to San Francisco and the main SP office there. Even that grand building changed hands and has been repurposed. Today it holds offices and an extremely fancy restaurant, One Market, on the ground floor.

Some day I'll get intentionally lost. Turn off Mission Boulevard, go under that bridge and see what is left.

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