Kevin Standlee (kevin_standlee) wrote,
Kevin Standlee
kevin_standlee

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A Train-Related Day With No Train Ride

As I mentioned a few days ago, Niles -- one of the other "downtowns" in the multiple-town municipal accumulation that is Fremont -- was holding a ceremony today called Golden Spike III to officially celebrate the extension of the Niles Canyon Railway to Niles. cherylmorgan indulged me and we went over to have a look. We got there early enough to find a place where we could see most of what was going on. The rain held off, which must have pleased the organizers; in fact, it got sunny enough that I wished I'd worn my hat and sunglasses.

The event involved lots of people in period costume from the late 1800s when the line was built. They backed a steam train (Qunicy Railroad #2) into the platform, then brought a diesel locomotive (Southern Pacific 5472 in "Black Widow" paint scheme) up facing it, in between which was the area where all the VIPs and event organizers had gathered.

A band played the Star Spangled Banner (the leader of the band noted that this was anachronistic, as the song wasn't considered the national anthem when the line was originally laid) and "I've Been Working on the Railroad." Local politicians gave (mercifully short) speeches, as well as the organizers who briefly recapped the history of restoring service to Niles. Then it was time for the presentation of a "golden spike." This was disrupted by a gang of desperadoes who were about to steal the spike, but were intercepted by the Good Guys, as the Sheriff and his posse bagged them and the spike was placed into its hole in the track, whereupon all of the VIPs took turns tapping on it and trying to avoid the example of Leland Stanford (who, when called upon to drive the golden spike at Promontory, missed).

I had hoped to take a ride up into Niles Canyon, but the next few trains were all sold out. However, as I live only ten minutes' drive from Niles, this is no hardship; I can go ride it some other day that they are operating. I've been on the NCRY before, but not since they extended down to Niles.

After the speechmaking, the VIPs boarded the steam train and it chuffed off to Sunol. We stayed and watched it depart, then walked over to the Niles Depot, located a short distance away. This is not the station for the NCRY, but instead the preserved ex-Southern Pacific Niles depot ("station" in British English). Inside is a small railroad museum and two model train layouts, an N-scale layout upstairs and a much more elaborate HO-scale model downstairs.

Having had our fill of model trains, and having determined that we wouldn't get on the full-size train today, we walked back across to Niles proper. Niles is still a railroad town in a sense. The Union Pacific Niles subdivision runs through the area. (I've passed through many times on board the Capitol, which however does not stop at Niles, only at Centerville a few miles away.) Two Union Pacific freight trains came through while the politicians were talking, in fact. The NCRY platform is on the opposite side of the tracks from the downtown Niles district, and you're not allowed to cross at grade. (There are signs warning of the $271 fine for doing so.) Instead, you have to go up to the road/pedestrian Sullivan Underpass at one end of the downtown district, but this is only about 100 meters or so and is no big deal.

We walked the length of the downtown district, which appears to be mostly antique shops. I suggested we plan to go see the silent film that was announced to be showing at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, one of the few buildings in downtown Niles that is not a antique store. We went inside to make sure we had the time right, and one of the people there gave us the tour, including taking us up into the projectionist booth. Although the theatre had not been used for many years, the subsequent tenants left much of the fittings in place, including the projectionist's booth (less the equipment). Remember that in those days, film was on nitrate stock, the projectionist hand-cranked the machine, and a very hot lamp was pointing at what was highly flammable and explosive film. No wonder you needed a tin-lined fireproof room in which to show it!

Confirming the movie time, we found we had an hour to have lunch. There were a couple of places to eat in Niles, and we stopped at La Fajita Mexican Grill, where the food was good but the service was slow. I think they lost our order, actually. Their nachos and salsa were good, and the food itself was good as well, and even with the slow service, we got back across the street and into the theatre (paying a $5 suggested donation each) and settled in to watch a real silent film epic: John M. Ford's The Iron Horse, a tale of the building of the transcontinental railroad.

I'm not sure I would have told you I could sit through a two-hour silent film, even one about railroads, but the live musical accompaniment, performed by a man whose name I neglected to write down, was great. He wrote the score for this accompaniment, and he had a good synthesizer, which he'd programmed with all manner of sounds. During the gunfight scenes, he even had gunshots. Performing a live accompaniment to a silent film looks like a really difficult job, and in fact he looked a little uncomfortable at the very start, when I think he had to play the overture through at least twice because they seemed to have some difficulty getting the film started, but thereafter he was just fine. I went up and shook his hand afterwards and congratulated him.

Politically incorrect sidebar: As I was talking to the accompanist, a woman came up and asked me to take her picture with him at his keyboard. She was of Chinese ancestry and had worn a traditional Chinese dress (as had several other women at the event) in honor of the significant number of Chinese who worked on the transcontinental railroad. This was not forgotten in the movie, which showed Chinese working away on the Central Pacific. Ford's film is full of what today would be considered inappropriate racial stereotypes, but, as I commented, everyone was treated equally badly, you might say. There was a boisterous, ready-to-fight, dumb Irishman; a shifty Italian (whose heart melted when the beautiful daughter of the contractor asked him and his fellow workers to stay on the job even though the payroll train had been waylaid by Indians); comic Chinese being taught work chants by the dumb Irishman; and so forth. Very over the top by today's standards, but as I said, nobody was singled out. And heck, some of the stuff was funny.

The movie climaxes with what is sometimes called the "champagne shot" recreating the original golden spike ceremony at Promontory. The Villain from early in the film had met his end at the hands of the Hero, who also got The Girl. Cheryl pointed out that the mass shot at the end included not only the Irish, Mexican, and Chinese laborers, but also the Pawnee scouts who had been working for the railroad. It was a happy ending, and I went away thinking I'd gotten my five dollars' worth. Fun stuff.

So there we have it: I spent most of the day at a Railroad Days celebration and never actually got to ride a train. Oh, well, in a few weeks we can go back and take a ride when it's less busy, but the wildflowers should still be blooming in Niles Canyon.
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