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July 31, 2007 > History


Niles, the subway center

Most of the people who live in Niles are proud to live there, but they probably do not brag about living in a "subway town." It is rather difficult to tell how many subways Niles has; it depends on when you count and how far out from Niles you look.

Originally there were two towns, Vallejo Mills, which became known as "Old Town," and the new railroad town named "Niles." The two towns were separated by railroad tracks which created some communication problems and dangerous crossings. There were several serious accidents through the years and many close escapes. A few buildings in "Old Town" were pulled across the tracks to Niles, but that did not solve the safety problems. The solution was by creating subways under the tracks, avoiding dangerous railroad crossings.

The first subway was a narrow structure under the Southern Pacific tracks to connect the road on Front (or Main Street) to Old Town (Vallejo Mills) and Niles Canyon. It was a county road built under a 1901 agreement with the Southern Pacific Railroad and the Spring Valley Water Company. Niles residents were jubilant because the tunnel was a much safer railroad crossing for horses and wagons. When trucks replaced wagons, the narrow and low 16-foot ceiling tunnel resulted in several accidents.

The Chamber of Commerce was discussing the need for a tunnel under the railroad tracks at the north end of town in 1909. Niles citizens petitioned the Board of Supervisors in June 1914 for a "tunnel to do away with the dangerous grade crossing." Supervisors appointed viewers for a tunnel site above the Essanay plant in July 1915. The request was granted and a spot chosen in December 1915 for the tunnel opposite Tom Sullivan's house. Railroad Commissioners approved the subway after listening to Chamber of Commerce delegates. Tom Sullivan donated the property and the subway was named for him.

The local paper reported that a force of men started work on the $38,000 subway in June 1916 to "connect the two strands of the State Highway on each side of the track." Costs were borne jointly by the Southern Pacific and Alameda County. The grading was soon finished and concrete work begun in July, but the subway was not completed until February 1917.

Subways continued to be a source of concern as noted in a 1931 news clip: "Baled hay to the roof in the Main Street subway under the Southern Pacific tracks slowed down traffic for several hours last Thursday morning. A south-bound truck and trailer dumped the hay when the load shifted on the trailer just at the foot of the grade in the north end of the subway."

The Chamber of Commerce continued their efforts to get warning bells at the railroad crossings at Thane's Corner and Morrison Avenue south of Alameda Creek. Railroad Commission Engineer R. C. Ashworth came to Niles, studied the crossings and reported that they were extremely dangerous." It was expected that a subway would be built at Thane's Corner, but it didn't happen for years.

Niles residents continued to be concerned about subways and railroad crossings, but they were faced with rumors and new concerns. Laura Whipple called the Southern Pacific Company about subway conditions in Niles and received a letter from F. L. Burckhalter dated February 10, 1936 that "plans have been completed for the construction of a new state highway located from five to eight hundred feet northeasterly of the present highway through Niles." The plans also meant that the subway for the Niles Canyon road would be moved south and built to handle larger loads and increased traffic.

Burckhalter closed his letter by saying, "I trust the fulfillment of these plans will take care of the undesirable situation to which you refer." He probably did not understand or care much about how the plans would affect the town of Niles.

Plans included a new subway for South Main Street, but they also rerouted State Highway Route 5 around Niles. Instead of going down Main Street south to the bridge over Alameda Creek, the highway would bypass the town in a large arc. The project, known as the "Niles grade separation and relocation project" included relocating about three miles of highway, constructing six underpasses and building a new concrete bridge over Alameda Creek.

The town of Niles continues to be served by subways. The Sullivan underpass serves as access to the Niles Canyon Railway and continues as a main entrance to Niles.

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