Fremont's Niles District: Time Travel to the Wild West

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Niles evokes an era when railroad was the best in travel, silent films were in their heyday and cowboys roamed the streets. Once a junction of the Southern Pacific Railroad, the town garnered fame when the silent film industry descended upon Niles. The year 1912 brought Charlie Chaplin and Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson to establish the West Coast studio for Chicago’s Essaney Film Manufacturing Co.

These industries left their imprint and today the town embraces its roots, while inventing traditions of its own. Over 15 antique stores line Niles Boulevard, as well as a tea shop, restaurants and a biker bar. Passenger trains run through Niles Canyon on weekends, offering family friendly rides and wine tasting for the 21 and over crowd. The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum screens silent films, houses movie making equipment and hosts a weekend dedicated to Charlie Chaplin. Although the town is incorporated into Fremont, it retains a distinct feel of its own.

Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum (37417 Niles Blvd)
The silent film character that only briefly lived in the town of Niles but changed it forever can still be seen today. He wears a pair of baggy pants, a tight coat, small bowler hat, a large pair of shoes, a cane and a famous small moustache. His name is Charlie Chaplin, in the silent film era’s most famous personality of The Tramp. Chaplin can be seen painted in murals, in antique shops and on the screen at the Edison Theatre, built in 1913, housed within the museum building.

Charlie Chaplin Days at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum
This festival of events includes two days of Charlie Chaplin films shown at the Edison Theatre, art contests and carnival games, and culminates with a Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest. Typically the first weekend in June, check the Film Museum website for future dates and events.

Bronco Billy’s Pizza Palace (37651 Niles Blvd)
Broncho Billy, the first cowboy star of movies, shot many of his films in Niles using the Niles Canyon and railway as the perfect western backdrop. The pizza palace named after Billy serves up New York style pizza with western names, like the Chuckwagon Delight or the Sagebrush Special. Slices are well sized and the interior features counter seating, checkered covered tables and walls filled with cowboy décor.

Niles Depot Model Railroads and Museum (37592 Niles Boulevard)
The museum houses a large collection devoted to the Southern and Western Pacific Rail lines of the past, as well as present day Union Pacific and Amtrak. A model railroad displays a historically accurate representation of Niles and nearby communities. The museum is open Sundays from 10am to 4pm and during most special events in Niles.

Niles Canyon Railway (37105 Vallejo Way)
Across the tracks from the Niles Depot is the stop for the Niles Canyon Railway, which runs between Niles and Sunol. An all-volunteer staff runs the scenic tour through the canyon on weekends throughout the late spring, summer and fall. Check the website for an up-to-date schedule of train operation. Both steam and diesel trains operate, with special events like a wine tasting tour and holiday lights.

Needle to the Groove Record Shop (131 I St)

A record store for the vinyl enthusiast, new music comes in every day and is hand cleaned and inspected by store staff. From jazz to rock, vintage and first press original copies fill the store. Owner Dan Bernal started the store 7 years ago after he realized he had too many records and wanted to “get records into people’s hands who want to play them and enjoy them.

Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

Published on August 5, 2013

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