Daycation to Niles, “America’s First Hollywood”
NILES, California. 1914. A-list star Charlie Chaplin has set up residence to film three new movies at fellow movie star Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson’s, new studio. Anderson is a partner in the Chicago-based Essanay Film Manufacturing Company. The studio, The Edison Theater, is only the second film studio operating in California.
Today, downtown Niles still looks much like it did when Chaplin lived there. The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum sits on the spot of the old studio and features a collection of memorabilia, films, books, posters and photos documenting “America’s first Hollywood.” On weekends the museum turns into a working theater where historic movies are screened. More than a dozen antique stores, a handful of sidewalk cafés and several craft stores comprise much of the rest of the Niles district, which is situated within the city of Fremont.
Although it’s easily accessible by freeway, a great way to experience Niles is to travel there like people did during the time of Chaplin – by rail. To do so, start your journey in Sunol, where steam engines still operate along the Niles Canyon Railway, a living history museum that pays tribute to the Pacific Coast railroads. The railway only operates on weekends, but most of the stores aren’t open during the week, making weekends the best time to visit Niles anyway. Take the 10:30am train out of Sunol, then head to the Sullivan Underpass to make the short walk downtown. The last train leaves Niles at 1:30pm. Fares are $7-$13 for the round-trip excursion. Seating is first come first served. Both closed and open air cars are available for your riding pleasure.
While downtown, stop in the Niles Depot Museum (this is not the operating train depot) to see the display of railroad signals, lanterns, track tools and historic photographs from the area.
There are several cafés where you can get a salad or sandwich, but if you have time, stop in at Bronco Billy’s Pizza Palace. I’m pretty sure the place looks exactly the same as the day it opened. The salad bar is nothing to write home about, but the pizza is terrific. Word of warning, a slice of pizza is as big as an entire pie. Order accordingly or plan on leftovers. My chuck wagon slice made a great breakfast the next day.
IF YOU GO: Sundays are the best days to visit Niles. There are often many festivities going on in the plaza and all of the shops are generally open. Find the Sunol Train Depot at 6 Kilkare Road in Sunol. For train schedules, visit ncry.org or call 510.996.8420. For information on the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, including hours, weekday tours for school children and upcoming events, visit nilesfilmmuseum.org or call 510.494.1411. The Niles District is three or four blocks long and completely walkable. To find out more about specific stores in Niles, visit Niles.org.