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January 18, 2011 > History: Mayhew Canyon

History: Mayhew Canyon

The dirt road that connected Mission San Jose to the present Oakland area ran along the foot of what we call Mayhew Canyon. Jose Vallejo fenced the pasture land and erected adobe buildings to qualify for his grant of Rancho Arroyo de La Alameda. He had his American Indian workers dig adobe soil from the ravine north of the mill to make bricks and erect several buildings. His irrigation ditch ran north along the base of the hills toward Hayward. At the mouth of the canyon he built an immense corral where cattle were held and branded. Niles pioneers recalled that the corral was about eight feet high and covered around 10 acres.

Vallejo gradually lost control of his huge rancho in numerous lawsuits and complications through the years. Jonas Clark acquired this part of Vallejo's Rancho in 1862. He sold pieces and then subdivided his remaining property in 1882.

The Western Pacific Railroad built north to San Leandro in 1869. Niles Station became an important stop and connecting point, and the sulphur spring that bubbled up in the canyon above the station became famous for its healthful waters. Railroad workers spread the news about the wonderful water; engineers, conductors and brakemen filled their jugs to drink on their daily runs between Oakland and Sacramento. They were said to have sweet dispositions because "they drank the water." Christy, who sold newspapers and magazines at the station, was also very patient and helpful apparently because he drank the famous sulphur water. Neighbors and visitors carried the water away in jugs to use in their homes.

The spring at Niles was drying up in 1876 and the railroad had to pump water from the channel at Vallejo's Mill to fill their tanks. A gang of workmen was digging a tunnel into the hill in search of water.

Harrison Mayhew heard that Clark was selling his land, so he purchased 218 acres that included the canyon and hillside above Niles. He fenced the land, built a house and moved his family to their new home. He established an orange grove, a vineyard, and planted almond and English walnut trees; by 1892 had replaced some vines with trees. Mayhew used the water from the springs for family needs and even to supply fresh water to the town of Niles. The ranch became known as the Sulphur Springs Ranch because of the famous sulphur springs in the canyon.

Charles Shinn wrote that the lower portion of the Mayhew vineyard and orchard occupied the site of Vallejo's immense cattle corral. Traces of the old grove received the most publicity. The 1898 Special Edition of the Washington Press pictured the Mayhew "Orange Orchard." Trees were loaded with fruit and taller than the ladder in the photo. The Mayhew grove was the largest in Washington Township.

Exuberant Chamber of Commerce members predicted in 1910 that the population of Niles would zoom to 10,000 by 1915. They even painted Walpert's old barn in big bold letters that read "Watch Niles Grow - Population 1915, 10,000." The barn became a favorite retreat for hoboes and was familiarly called "Diamond Palace." Promotion schemes failed, and Niles did not grow very fast. A great sigh of relief went up when the sign was painted out. The Washington Press noted, "No more could the Centerville wags paint the sign to read Watch Niles Growl." The old barn was torn down in 1914. Again the local editor noted, "It was even a greater sigh of relief that Niles people now see the old landmark removed from their sight forever and ever."

The Washington Press reported in 1916 that the farm of Mrs. E. B. Mayhew "Adjoining the town of Niles within almost a stone's throw of the S. P. Station is one of the oldest and best farms in Alameda County. It was noted for a spring of mineral water impregnated with sulphur and the only commercial orange orchard in this section. The latter was set out over 20 years. The farm is beautifully located among the hills of the valley's rim and if divided into small tracts, would furnish sites for many fine homes."

The Essanay baseball team used the old ball field on the Mayhew property at times. Around the turn of the century the hillsides became popular for growing peas, beans, and potatoes. The first potatoes sent to market in 1917 were shipped by Joe Mendoza from land on the Walpert estate. The first two sacks were shipped March 27 and brought $12.50 per sack. Later shipments never were sold at such a high price. It was reported that in January 1922 rich crops were growing on the hillsides and a bad freeze and cold wind destroyed 60 percent of the early crops.

The Ed Rose family ranch in the canyon was a free popular gathering place for outdoor pleasure seekers in the thirties. Vandals wrecked the campgrounds in 1932.

Hill climbs were popular Niles events in the years leading up to World War II; the last one was held in February, 1942.

Members of the Niles Junior Chamber of Commerce erected the huge sign on the side of Walpert's Hill in 1935. Members reported that pilots from Oakland Airport used the sign to check navigation. Boy Scout groups cleaned the sign on several occasions. The sign was covered in February 1942 as a precaution against enemy pilots using it for a guide. It was uncovered by members of the Junior Chamber of Commerce in November 1945.

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