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July 6, 2004 > Over the River

Over the River

People who lived at Niles had few problems fording Alameda Creek when the water was low, but it was dangerous or impossible to cross when the creek was flooding. On March 30, 1776 De Anza and his small expeditionary group forded Alameda Creek here on their horses and described the nearby deep pools in the expedition diary. The only safe way to go around in the mid-nineteenth century was by way of the Bell Ranch Bridge near present Decoto Road. Another bridge was needed, but the banks were far apart and a bridge would be expensive to build.

Authors of the History of Washington Township relate a story about a Mr. Gardner and Mr. Rice driving south from Hayward to the resort at Warm Springs in 1864. They lost the road in the dark near the Vallejo Adobe (still standing in the California Nursery Company Historical Park), missed the ford and plunged some 25 feet down the creek bank. Rice was killed and Gardner badly injured. Missing the ford at Vallejo Mills proved to be a costly error.

A reporter going by stage coach from Oakland to Warm Springs in 1859 described the horses splashing through Alameda Creek with the wheels hub deep in the water. It was an exciting experience for travelers who were not used to fording streams.

The first bridge at Niles was built by the Western Pacific Railroad in 1866. This was a substantial structure costing $80,000 but burned in 1870. It was replaced by a temporary bridge so trains could cross. The bridge was so badly damaged in the severe floods of 1871-72 that train service was interrupted for awhile. It was removed in 1873 when the connecting line was changed and later replaced with a steel bridge.

The first wagon bridge was built by the county at the foot of Vallejo Street in 1872. It was 414 feet long, 18 feet wide and stood 20 feet above the water. It rested on four tubular abutments and piers 134 feet apart. It cost $14,000 and was the longest bridge in Alameda County. The road from Mission San Jose crossed over the railroad tracks to reach the bridge.

This bridge was replaced by a steel structure in 1886 that did not cross the railroad track but was really a southern extension of First Street. Two of the four spans of this bridge and the nearby railroad bridge washed out in the terrible flood of 1911. Niles residents posed on remnants of the structure during the flood and marveled at the power of the river. The two surviving spans were pulled upstream by an eight horse team to make a bridge to what became the Niles Glen and Canyon Heights development.

The floods continued and people struggled with washouts and temporary bridges. All bridges at Niles were apparently destroyed in 1914. A concrete bridge with arched supports was finally completed in 1915. A visiting reporter described the bridge:

"At the east end of Niles, is the bridge Niles is proud of. It crosses Alameda creek, which once a year swells itself. The bridge is constructed of reinforced concrete and 512 tons of steel, is 512 feet long, with its foundation driven forty feet and at its center is ninety feet deep. It can be said that this bridge leads to one of the happiest and most prosperous towns in California." A postcard dated 1916 showed the new concrete bridge, "the pride of Niles."

The 1915 bridge apparently survived the floods and provided a safe crossing until the State Highway Commission and the Railroad Commission decided that the best way to provide safe crossing was to by-pass Niles and build a new bridge. They insisted that their plan for subways and a new bridge was "for the best." Residents and leaders protested and tried to keep their bridge, but in the end it was blown up after the completion of the 1937 by-pass route.

A 42 million dollar project to widen Mission Boulevard and the bridge over Alameda Creek is being constructed over several years with completion planned for August 2005. The bridge will be wider and the flow of traffic greater; traditional street lamps are being added and the 1943 neon arrow sign returned; but who can say that the new bridge will provide more visitors to explore the mysteries of Niles. There are also many who hope that "Big Daddy's," a bridgeside diner, will return at the corner of Old Canyon Road and Mission Boulevard; a Buck's of Woodside eatery would be great here too.

The survival of Niles as a destination has depended on access by the bridge over Alameda Creek. Abandoning the direct route down Main Street and over the bridge has left Niles isolated from the flow of traffic on Mission Boulevard and potential customers. The old bridges brought many to Niles. We hope the new bridge will make it easier to use the left turn lane to discover the charming town of Niles.

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