September 13, 2011 > History: Niles Canyon Road
History: Niles Canyon Road
Many stories have been written about the stream, the camps, the railroads and movies of Niles Canyon. This column is an attempt to chronicle the history of the road.
Father Fermin Lasuen and an escort of soldiers from the Presidio of San Francisco set out in June 1797 to explore the canyon of the Alameda (now usually called Niles Canyon). As they rode up the canyon, they encountered a huge grizzly bear which they killed with some 11 musket shots.
There were several petitions for roads at the first regular term of the Court of Sessions of Alameda County, but there appeared to be no demand for a road up Alameda Canyon.
There was a sort of road along Alameda Creek prior to 1858; it was declared a public road in 1859. The rough wagon road settlers carved through the Canyon was passable only when the creek could be forded. The gorge was a place of wild and romantic beauty, but it was very difficult to traverse because of frequent floods. Western Pacific Railroad Company workers began grading in the canyon in 1865; some of the cuts were over 60 feet deep with embankments over 50 feet high retained at the bottom by huge masonry walls. The report makes no mention of what happened to the road, but Historian William Haley later reported, "What wagon road there was through Alameda Canyon had been wantonly destroyed by the railroad engineers in making their road, through the pass." Citizens protested in 1890 when trees along the road were thinned out. They wailed that "one of the greatest claims of the drive had been destroyed."
The area was hit with an unprecedented early season storm in November 1892. Residents had labored for years to maintain a passable road through the canyon, and now they were forced to try to establish some kind of road along the south bank. The flood was the worst since 1862.
Laura Thane, a Niles writer, described the devastation left by the storm in Niles Canyon. "Old landmarks are gone, fine old trees have been carried down with the flood, favorite campgrounds are completely ruined, and the roadway is totally unfit and dangerous to travel from one end to the other of the canyon. In several places the roadway is entirely gone for sections of 500 feet or more; and it is extremely doubtful if a roadway can ever be built along the old line. There is no means of getting in or out of the canyon with a team." The men living in the canyon cut a trail over the hill so they could get to Niles by horseback.
Automobiles became more common and some adventurous motorists tried to drive through the canyon while it was still a wagon road. A few had to be pulled out of the fords by Frank Rose and his famous team of horses which he kept handy in his Niles Livery Stables.
The county was fixing the road through the canyon in the Spring of 1909, taking out some sharp curves and widening the bed so a two-way road could eventually be installed. The contract for construction of the first permanent bridge of the scenic highway was let and the cornerstone laid in November. About 10 huge sycamore trees were felled to make way for the new Spring Valley Water Company fence. It was claimed that there was now a permanent road to Farwell with hopes for an "all-year one to Sunol in the near future."
A local editor wrote in 1910, "Through Alameda Canyon winds the beautiful Canyon Road, on which many improvements are being made and bridges built. It is planned to make a broad driveway through the canyon, which for scenic beauty and picturesqueness will not be equaled anywhere. It is in the Niles district, and the only real canyon in the Township, though there are many minor gorges in the foothills. The two lines of railroad pass through the canyon, where the high walls tower above the tracks in impressive grandeur." It was also noted that the "driveway would be a source of never ending pleasure."
Auto clubs began promoting Niles Canyon as "an enjoyable objective for a short afternoon trip" and listing it on their tours in the early 1920's. The county set aside funds for paving in 1925. The road was widened near "the narrows" and a retaining wall built in 1927. This provided a full eighteen foot roadway, and the drive became more popular each year for tourists. The route was described in 1931 as "one of natures most inspiring pieces of architecture." The National Automobile club advertised in December 1933, "The road through the canyon is good, being oiled gravel, and follows along the Alameda Creek. Trees have donned their autumn colors and present a gorgeous sight." Hundreds of Sunday tourists came to enjoy the beauty of the canyon.
Workers moved Alameda Creek over to the side to make more room for the highway in 1940. In the process they removed two bridges, built a cement retaining wall and shortened the route 1/10 mile.
One dangerous spot was the sharp turn at the underpass at the Southern Pacific steel bridge. The State Department of Public Works widened the curve to provide roadway approach in 1949.
Niles Canyon Road was described in 1982 as "one of the most dangerous sections of Fremont." Speeders and drunken drivers were creating hazardous road conditions while the route had become eligible to become a scenic highway in 1989. Commuters helped raise traffic volume until it rose to 16,000 per day in 2000.
It has been way over 200 years since the Spanish soldiers killed the grizzly bear in the canyon, but we are still cutting trees, building embankments and widening the road. It's still a favored road to many residents.