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November 9, 2010 > History: Lida Thane's "Notes from Niles," 1890-1894

History: Lida Thane's "Notes from Niles," 1890-1894

Laura Eliza Thane, known as Lida Thane, wrote a series of columns for the San Francisco Morning Call and the Oakland Enquirer that were published between 1890 and 1894. She signed her articles Mrs. L. E. Thane, as she was married to Joseph Eiley Thane. Many of the columns carried the headline "Notes from Niles," but others had such titles as "May Day from Niles," "Letter from Niles," Gossip from Niles," and "Orchards Near Niles." She could write about Niles because that is where she lived and worked. She knew the people, their struggles and their triumphs.

Many of the columns are about the orchards, the fruit industry, the fruits raised here, the varieties, their strengths and problems, but sometimes Lida tucked in interesting items about the people and their activities.

The first article, entitled "A Year's Progress," recognizes some items of progress spurred by the sale of town lots by the railroad in recent years. Niles could now boast of having two nurseries, 25 new homes, a school house, church, town hall, a new depot, 350 acres of nearby orchards, 20 acres of oranges, and three new bridges over Alameda Creek. Even the hill land had been plowed where possible and planted with vegetables. Lida described Niles in 1891 as "a bustling little town" with rumors of many improvements coming soon.

There were indications that some merchants were moving from Old Town (Vallejo Mills) to the new town of Niles when J. C. Astrue sold his hotel in Old Town and built another on Main Street. M. S. Easterday erected his hotel named the Arlington. It burned a few months later but he cleaned up the mess and rebuilt it. There had been some talk about forming a fire department, but that did not happen for years. After Dr. Ray opened his office and a drugstore came in 1892, there was only one vacant corner on Main Street.

Water shortages and rain variations were recurring problems for farmers. Spring Valley Water Company had purchased the water rights to Alameda Creek, installed a dam and controlled the flow of water. The farmers had built an irrigation ditch, but in dry years Spring Valley did not let them have enough water to irrigate their orchards, and the farmers lost money with poor fruit. Wells had to be dug deeper and deeper. One near Niles was useless because escaping gas made the water unfit to drink. Some years Spring Valley patrolled the streams to stop people from swimming. They even tried to keep out campers who had rented a spot on private land along the creek.

The fruit harvest was the big activity for the year. Fruit had to be picked by hand so many workers were needed for a short time. Farmers had been depending on Chinese workers to pick, but Lida noted in 1891 that the Chinese had been raising their prices until they had become "a high priced article demanding almost as much as the Caucasian men." They had even formed their own firms, such as The Pacific Fruit Packing Company and were now in the canning business.

Harvested fruit had to be marketed and shipped, so shipping depots were opened at the railroad station during the season by San Francisco firms. Ellsworth and Co. were the big shippers and handled most of the cherries. Several new canneries were reported ready for the 1891 season. When prices were down or the crops were poor, farmers were prepared to dry the fruit. William Mortimer shipped a special train of 10 cars of dried fruits and nuts from Niles to Chicago in 1891. This was a new and bold venture that opened up new marketing possibilities.

Lida describes the manufacture of sugar at the Alvarado factory. She also briefly mentions other industries including huge shipments of nursery stock by Trumbull and Beebe, A. P. Hammond, and the California Nursery which shipped two or three carloads per day in their busy season. Also mentioned are the salt industry, the oyster industry at Jarvis Landing and Farwell Quarry which is credited with providing stone for famous buildings in San Francisco.

These articles include some interesting notes about Niles residents and their activities. The first wedding in the new First Congregational Church of Niles was the marriage of the first pastor, Rev. F. M. Maar, to Miss May Tyler in 1891. Later, a tennis tournament was postponed because of another wedding there. People talked about organizing a Chautauqua Circle, so the boys at the Church printed up meeting notices on the new church press. A Circle was formed and began holding regular meetings that led to years of other meetings and performances that brought more culture and education to residents of Niles and nearby areas.

The December 24, 1892 article was about a heavy storm and preparations for a flood. Lida wrote, "The land is full of water and all that falls will doubtless flow down stream." She was right. The road up Niles Canyon was so completely washed out that it was impossible to get a team through the devastation. But all was not lost. There was still the Whist Club, domino and tiddly winks parties; hardy Niles workers repaired the damage and carried on. Lida was right -Niles residents continued their efforts to improve their lot and develop the town.

We are grateful that Lida Thane wrote such interesting articles and that others labored to preserve them for our enjoyment and education over 100 years later. You can read these original articles at the Museum of Local History, 190 Anza St., Fremont.

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