We turned off Mission Boulevard, passed under a train bridge, rounded a corner – and went a century back in time.
That’s what it feels like going to Niles.
Niles is a 4,000-person small town, completely enveloped by the quarter-million residents of Fremont in Northern California’s East Bay.
The town appears to be hermetically-sealed in a 1910s-era time bubble, with its main street fronted by a row of antique stores that bring out droves of bargain-hunters every weekend.
We only intended to stay long enough to say a quick hello to our good friend Michael McNevin, who is a Niles resident and its chief cheerleader. He is also the greatest musician you’ve never heard of.
We met up for breakfast at “The Nile,” which is decorated in an interesting mixture of ancient Egypt and old railroad town, where we sat in chairs named “Stinky,” “Fuzz,” and “Sweet Lips.”
Down the street from the restaurant a newly-restored train station rests alongside the final stretch of the transcontinental railroad. The day before, the station was seen by millions of online browsers, who saw a short film that was made there by Google to celebrate Charlie Chaplin’s birthday.
It was an appropriate place to honor the great silent film comedian, because Chaplin made a handful of films in Niles in 1915. Although he didn’t particularly like Niles – this is still Charlie’s town.
We discovered Niles a few years ago, thanks to our love of silent films.
Almost a century ago, two men, George Spoor, (the moneyman), and “Broncho Billy” Anderson (the first silent cowboy star), got together and created Essanay Studios in Niles (named after S & A, their initials). They signed the papers that created the studio near where Stinky, Fuzz, and Sweet Lips sit today.
Niles was the place where Chaplin went to make movies (as well as a lot more money), after spending his first year in films at Hollywood’s Keystone Studios.
We had intended to depart after breakfast, but Niles has a way of diverting you in the nicest possible way, by the nicest people. Before we could leave town, Michael hooked us up with some complementary tickets on the Niles Canyon Railway which runs along the creek in the scenic canyon between Niles and the tiny village of Sunol. Just because.
During our 15-minute stop at Sunol, we walked across the street to a saloon called Bosco’s Bones and Brew, which was named after a dog who was legally elected mayor a few years ago.
We didn’t have time to sit for a beer, but the female bartender – showing Northern-California coolness – filled us a sample for free by setting a glass under a life-sized model of the late pooch and lifting his hind leg.
We rode the train back to Niles, spent a couple of hours browsing through the antique shops, and dropped in on the Essanay Museum to say hello to some friends who we hadn’t seen since they attended our ChaplinFest in February.
We again tried to leave town, but at 7 PM we found ourselves listening to Michael and his friend Patrick McClellan play a concert. Instead of headlining Madison Square Garden, where musicians of their talent should be featured, they performed at Michael’s Mudpuddle Music Shop on Main Street, where the walls are covered with Etch-a-sketch art which Michael creates as visual representations of his story songs.
The 225 square-feet of floor space was packed with wine-swigging friends. We sat by the door, which was a spot where Chaplin once stood for a picture in 1915. All the while, Clancy, the beautiful black lab who is Michael’s constant companion, moved from person-to-person, staying until the love played out, then proceeding on to the next round of pets and scratches.
The main act for the evening was a pair of enormously talented folk singers from Texas named Lynn Adler and Lindy Hearne. We explained to them ahead of time that we would probably have to leave early, as we had a long drive ahead of us.
After their first song, we were hooked, and at our pre-determined time of departure we were powerless to pull ourselves away and ended up staying for the entire two-hour show.
Nearly nine hours after we planned to motor on down the road, we finally left Niles behind. As we headed for the freeway, we passed the spot in Niles Canyon where Chaplin walked off into the sunset at the conclusion of The Tramp, ending his stay in Niles.
Unlike Chaplin, we love Niles, and will be back.
And once again, we’ll undoubtedly stay longer than we plan to.