Old Hollywood Forgotten: Niles, CA Made Silent Film Huge & You Didn’t Know

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Tucked away in the city of Fremont, CA is a town called Niles. This little district was once home to the Essanay Studios, where numerous ground-breaking silent films were made. Famous silent film stars such as Bronco Billy and Charlie Chaplin lived, worked, and played here in the early 1900’s. Get to know this little town once forgotten.

Previous to this story, I was unfamiliar with this “Old Hollywood,” let alone Niles itself. The first day I started shooting, I arrived within the golden hour and the lighting was fantastic! I fell in love with this little piece of the past with the afternoon winter light perfectly illuminating the hills in the back. Upon arriving, it seemed as though you were entering a movie set in itself.

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Once off the freeway, you drive through normal suburbia and eventually only residential areas. The road turns into a two-way street with speed bumps, then BAM, you’ve entered the twilight zone. On one side of the main street is all shops, little cafes, restaurants, and bars (Bronco Billy has a pizzeria named for him). On the other side is a park with the old Niles train station in the days of the Western Pacific line. There are palm trees all over the park and the district adding to that Hollywood feeling. Most of the stores on the other side of the street are antique shops which only add to all the nostalgia. There is now the Essanay Film Museum which also houses a theater that shows old silent films year round.

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The staff is very knowledgeable and friendly and are open to answer any and all questions about the history of the old film studio. I returned several times to keep photographing, and one night I was able to watch some of the silent films. At intermission, they allowed the viewers to come up to the projection room and see the equipment. Boy, was it hot up there! Since some of the old film contained highly flammable chemicals, all the machinery was made of metal and in turn made the space super hot as there wasn’t much ventilation.

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The next time I returned my boyfriend came along with me, and we spent the first half of the day antiquing and checking out the farmers market which sets up every Saturday. Almost every other store on Niles Blvd, the main street, is an antique shop, and there were countless odes to Charlie Chaplin laying around. We stopped at Joe’s corner for lunch, a friendly cafe and bar. An additional bar greets you when you first walk in, which also has a large window with bar stools for customers to enjoy nice weather. On weekends, some vintage cars are set out along Niles Blvd to admire: an old cab, a firetruck, and other vintage mobiles. Later that evening we stopped in The Florence (37349 Niles Blvd, Fremont) for a little refreshment. It was a perfect dive-bar with many locals and a friendly live band.   

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Overall, this town charmed me with its quirkiness and surprising liveliness. I love that there is a website dedicated to promoting all its upcoming events. The one thing I wasn’t able to do yet is take a ride on the historic train! I would definitely recommend visiting, even just for a day trip. See you soon, Niles!


Story and photography by Reena Dimaculangan, Get to know more of the Bay Area with a brief history lesson.

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