Niles Depot History

The Niles Depot is the second structure used as the Niles depot and was built by the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1901. It replaced an earlier depot that had occupied the site since 1870. The original Niles, California, depot included a restaurant and saloon for the convenience of train passengers. In 1900, Southern Pacific instituted a "dry law," closing all of the saloons in railroad eating-houses. Without the bar, the restaurant closed in mid-1901, and the depot - a relic of a country with fewer rules - closed soon after. The building was sold and part of it was moved a few blocks away, and it is now a private residence in Niles.

The town of Niles was important to the railroad since it was the junction of two major rail lines. One line went to San Jose, the other to Tracy, Stockton, and Sacramento. The completion of the railroad through Niles Canyon linked the San Francisco Bay Area with the rest of the transcontinental railroad. The more famous golden spike at Promontory, Utah, only connected Sacramento to the East, so it was not a coast-to-coast railroad until the line through Niles Canyon was finished.

The "new" Niles depot featured colonnade style architecture. It was built of redwood cut in the Santa Cruz Mountains and milled in Southern Pacific sawmills. Unlike most of the other colonnade style depot the railroad built between 1901 and 1913, the columns in the Niles depot were topped by ornate carved wood decoration (the columns are topped by ornate Victorian capitals and an elaborate entablature). Of about thirty colonnade style depots built, less than half exist today and the Niles depot is the only survivor having the ornate carved wood decoration.

During earlier years, the depot saw eight to ten passenger trains each day, along with many freight trains. Before World War I, Niles became the home of Essanay Studios.

Many early films were produced in Niles including most of "Bronco Billy" Anderson's westerns. The most famous films were those starring the little English actor, Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin's "Little Tramp" character first appeared on the streets of Niles. The depot saw several other famous, and not-so-famous stars arrive and depart.

The town was quiet after the studio moved to Hollywood. Life settled into the routine of a farming community. On Sunday afternoons and evenings, in mid weather, the local concert band played in front of the station while children romped, parents listened sedately, and medicine men hawked their wares. While the music blared and the steam engines took on water, a few of the male patrons held short but spirited sessions of thirst quenching at two handily situated bars, according to John "Nick" Pinna, station agent at Niles from 1956 to 1963. "Picnic trains ran until about 1950," he says. "They'd arrive about 10 a.m. and deposit their pleasure-bound riders upstream. After that they'd return to rest in the clear on the caboose track until about 4:30 p.m.

Local rail passenger service began to decline before World War II. The last regularly scheduled passenger service to the Niles depot was discontinued on January 22, 1941, but the depot remained open as a freight agency.

On September 14, 1974, the Public Utilities Commission granted SP permission to close the Niles depot. SP had tried to close the depot in 1972 but was rebuffed by opponents of the depot closure.

When Southern Pacific announced it would demolish the depot in 1981 to make way for new development a grass-root volunteer-based effort began to raise funds to save and restore it (Fremont contributed $25,000). The newly-formed Tri-City Society of Model Engineers also needed a permanent home for its HO and N-scale model railroads. SP agreed to donate the Niles depot to the group on the condition it move it off the property in a timely manner (Ironically the planned development of the land the depot occupied never materialized and the former site sat vacant until the depot was moved back to the same spot more than 25 years later).

On May 16, 1982, the depot was moved from its original location to a new site on Mission Boulevard and work began on the restoration. The movement route took it north on Niles Boulevard to Nursery Avenue and across the Southern Pacific mainline, then south on Mission Boulevard to the new location. Numerous power lines on Niles Boulevard had to be disconnected to allow clearance. The crossing gates and flashers on Nursery avenue also had to be temporarily removed to allow the depot to pass.

Major restoration of the depot was completed in December of 1988 by the Tri-City Society of Model Engineers, including a basement to house the HO-scale model railroad. A museum with local railroad and Niles artifacts was created and housed inside the depot along with the N-scale model railroad inside the baggage room. The rich history associated with the Niles depot and its contribution to local history spawned the formation of the Niles Depot Historical Foundation. This allowed members with a greater interest in the depot’s history to focus more of their efforts on preserving the depot and its past rather than the model railroads. Both groups would be based at the depot on Mission Boulevard for the next 20 years.

Almost as soon as the depot moved to the Mission Boulevard site in the early 1980s local residents and business owners yearned to have it return to Downtown Niles. The opportunity for its return arose in the early 2000s when the City of Fremont developed the Niles Concept Plan, which called for acquisition and redevelopment of the then-abandoned Niles rail yard into a railroad-themed plaza.

Residents successfully petitioned the inclusion of the Niles Depot into the plaza along with the Niles freight depot which had for years sat vacant close to the original site of the Niles depot.

Major cleanup work began on the plaza in the mid-2000s and on April 21, 2009, the Niles Depot again took to the streets for the journey back to Downtown Niles. The move was completed in two stages.

This time it was routed further south on Mission Boulevard and through the entrance and along the right-of-way of the Niles Canyon Railway, which had completed rebuilding the abandoned Southern Pacific line from Sunol to Niles just a few years earlier. Finally in the early morning hours of May 6, 2009, the Niles depot completed its round trip and crossed the mainline of the Union Pacific Railroad, which had acquired Southern Pacific in 1996.

The Niles depot was moved to its original location but this time rotated 180 degrees to allow the bay window and ornate columns to face Downtown Niles and the new town plaza. The freight depot was also moved next to the passenger depot site several months earlier on Oct. 1, 2008, and restored.

The Niles passenger depot's Grand Reopening was May 1, 2010 and contains the Niles Depot Museum's artifacts and a new expanded N-scale layout. The freight depot houses the museum library and a new HO-scale layout. Both layouts are being built to represent Niles and the surrounding communities and industries.