Niles, 2020 (Thumbnail pictures)

Margot Patterson Doss was a columnist who wrote wonderful articles for the San Francisco Chronicle under the title of ‘San Francisco at Your Feet’ and later in her career ‘The Bay Area at Your Feet’. In 1978 she wrote about the history of movies in Niles in her column entitled ‘The Movies’ One-Horse Town’. There wasn’t a lot of information available at that time about the history of Niles, and the article was a real treat for me. Margot’s articles were always a walking tour, complete with map, and I took her walking tour long ago and kept the article. I retook her Niles walk again this week. Some of this chapter of hers is outdated now, but it’s still the best single article I’ve seen concerning the film history of Niles. Margot Patterson Doss died in 2003; let’s take an internet walk with her around Niles and I’ll post some of her comments in brackets.

Much of the historic buildings in Niles are temporarily closed now due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, and a lot of the places I love to visit can only be seen from outside right now. Like Margot did forty two years ago, we’ll start at the train station.

{Park by the boarded up depot, ideal for a community center or railroad museum, and take a look at that train station and its palm trees. The bow at the ticket-wicket and the columns topped by window pilasters are such perfect architectural details, it should be nominated for the National Historic Register, an idea which has appealed to many townsfolk here}

The Train Station, which was moved to Mission Blvd. in 1982 and in 2009, back to the spot where it originally stood when it was built in 1911, is a railroad museum now.

My older brother David and I posed in front of the train station when it was boarded up before Margot wrote her article. You can tell the vintage picture was long ago because of my brother’s hair.


{Walk another block along Niles Boulevard, noting Don’s Antique Autoparts and the cigar store Indian in front of the Devil’s Workshop Mercantile, as you pass.}

I think Don’s Antique Autoparts is still there, but the cigar store Indian is gone. Two things Margot doesn’t comment on along this stretch because they may not have been known to her then, are the old movie theater where Charlie Chaplin premiered the five movies he shot in Niles and the house where Edna Purviance, Chaplin’s leading lady in the films he shot during his stay in Niles, used to live in. They’ve replaced the old fence now that was in front of Edna’s house when I took the top comparison in 2016.

{At Niles and G, Holland Gas, a suitably simple service station, stands on the site of the old Essanay building. All told, Essanay produced 450 Pictures in and around Niles, using Bronhco Billy, Ben Turpin, Wallace Beery, Jimmy Gleason, Zasu Pitts, Ethel Clayton, Marie Dressler, and nearly 50 lesser known talents.}

Holland Gas is gone now, and a fire station is now on the corner where the Essanay Movie Studio once was. The vintage photo of the studio taken in the late 1920s after the studio closed is from John Bengtson’s book ‘Silent Traces’.

{Bear left on G half a block to number 153-5, which was Broncho Billy’s office and cottage.}

This is where Broncho Billy stayed in Niles today. You’ll read more about him shortly.

{At Second Street, bear left along the lane of California sycamore trees. In 1912 this row of cottages was built to house performers on location. Many of the homes in this block are modifications and alterations of those early “dressings rooms.”}

This is the row of cottages today.

{At G Street bear right, crossing Second. Sidewalks, installed in 1930, have yet to be extended here.}

42 years after Margot’s article, and they still haven’t extended sidewalks here.

{At the Alley, cross G Street and bear left. The ramshackled, shake-roof barn is where Broncho Billy stabled his horse.}

Broncho Billy was the movies first major cowboy star.  Demolished in the 1980s, I remember looking at that barn when I first traced Margot’s map, fascinated by its history, but alas, alack, and Alaska, I didn’t have a camera to take a picture of it. “It is to weep.” Billy’s barn was right here behind the fence with the blue dawn flowers.

The rest of my visit was not on Margot Patterson Doss’s route. The old Niles Jail here now houses an insurance company. I’d like to think that Broncho Billy threw a bad hombre or two in here during his stay in Niles, but the building may have been built after his films were made in Niles.


East of the city of Niles is Niles Canyon, where Broncho Billy filmed most of his outdoor action scenes. It was also out in Niles Canyon, before the main highway ran through it, where Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp wandered off into folklore. Above, is a vintage picture posted on Pinterest of a train on the old Sunol-Niles Railroad route crossing the highway. You’re not allowed to stop on the highway here, so I had to take my picture as quick as I could. I didn’t get a train in my shot either.

Margot also wrote, {It was also down one of the tree-lined country lanes around Niles Canyon that a winsome little comedian named Charlie Chaplin waddled his way into the sunset and the hearts of filmgoers as “The Tramp.” The final fadeout in which the rejected tramp with the expressive cane walks off down the lane toward a brighter tomorrow became the signature as well as signoff of later Chaplin films. Which was the tree-lined lane of the little tramp? Today, only Chaplin knows.}

Not anymore, thanks to the historians at the Niles Museum who located the spot and directed me to it to get this comparison picture back in 2018. Also, Margot writes of the tree-lined lane, “Today, only Chaplin knows.” Charlie Chaplin died on Christmas Day, 1977, so Margot may have taken her walk before the article was published in 1978, or my recollection of the 1978 date of the column may not be accurate; “only Chaplin knows.”

8 thoughts on “Niles, 2020 (Thumbnail pictures)

  • NILES! Wow! Not many know about Niles anymore.That is where California Nursery Historical Park is. It was the nursery that grew the Canary Island date palms for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. Many of the ‘rejects’ remain, as well as some that were returned afterward. They are huge now. There are a few rare but undocumented species of Trachycarpus there as well. They were forgotten about a very long time ago, but are now becoming available as ‘newly discovered’ species. Unfortunately, they are neither as grand nor as exemplary as the Canary Island date palms are. I delivered both citrus and rhododendrons to the retail portion of the nursery before it closed down years ago. Also, I inspected trees within the landscapes of residential complexes that were built where part of the nursery had been. A huge and sculptural specimen of California pepper is more than a century old, within a landscape of a neighborhood that was build in the late 1970s or early 1980s. There was also a huge specimen of an unknown species of Ficus that was cut down before I inspected or even saw it. Unfortunately, the mismanagement of the landscapes is killing what should be historical trees that were initially protected when the sites were redeveloped.
    The California sycamores are actually London planes, Platanus X acerifolia. London plane is a hybrid of an American sycamore, Platanus occidentalis, and a European sycamore, Platanus orientalis. The name designates it as the sycamore that looks like a maple. Incidentally, the Norway maple is Acer platanoides, which designates it at the maple that looks like a sycamore, and the sycamore maple is Acer pseudoplatanus, which designates it as the maples that is a false sycamore; (which is likely way more information than you have use for.)

    • Not at all, Tony! That’s an interesting history of Niles that I’m not familiar with. Actually, when I posted this I was thinking about double checking with you about one of the pictures; in the modern picture of the fence in front of where Broncho Billy’s barn used to be, I identified the flowers on the fence as violets. Was that accurate?

  • Good article. Note: The old barn in Niles was also the first shooting stage and probably darkroom before the studio was built. Somewhere there’s a photo of that barn with its state.

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