In the early 1980s railroading in the San Francisco Bay Area was significantly different than it is today. Union Pacific had just acquired the Western Pacific, introducing Armour Yellow to Northern California for the first time.
Southern Pacific's ill-fated merger attempt with the Santa Fe was still years away; the South Bay still hosted four active yards, and Niles Tower was still open, playing host to both SP and WP/UP freights on a daily basis.
As part of our San Jose Sentinals series we present here a profile of Western Pacific's last manned interlocking tower, which sat tucked away on the banks of Alameda Creek in the Niles district of Fremont.
So step into our
Way Back Machine for a glimpse of one of what was once Northern California's
most colorful and enduring railroad icons.
When Western Pacific built its railroad through the Eastbay village of Niles Southern Pacific was already there: twice! SP maintained two separate mainlines between San Jose and Oakland, known as the Mulford and Decoto Lines. (See southbay map)
The western most line (closest to the Bay) was part of the legendary South Pacific Coast Railroad, running up from San Jose through the tideflats towns of Alviso and Drawbridge. The eastern most line was SP's original mainline that was built as part of the Transcontinental Railroad. It originated in Sacramento and traversed Altamont Pass.
Through the 1980's SP's Mulford Line was the preferred route between San Jose and Oakland. SP ran the majority of its freight traffic and Amtrak's Coast Starlight over this route.
Leaving San Jose,
the tracks follow the the old South Pacific Coast right-of-way, passing
through Santa Clara and Alviso, where they cross the Southbay wetlands.
The line then passes through Newark, just west of Fremont, then on up to
Oakland. The second line runs from College Park in San Jose, through that
city's downtown district where it swings north through Milpitas and on
up to Niles (actually the Niles District of Fremont). At Niles the Centerville
main juts off to the left to connect with the Mulford line, and effectively
creating a wye.
The Decoto line was SP's original route from San Jose to Oakland, but after SP purchased the narrow gauge South Pacific Coast Railroad and relayed it to standard gauge, the line was downgraded to secondary status. After upgrading their new water-level route to become the principle Oakland-San Jose route, it was named the Mulford Line, after the station of the same name at M.P. 15.0.
The Centerville line was once a very important piece of railroad for the SP, being used to route trains running from the Central Valley via Altamont Pass to San Francisco by way of the Dumbarton Bridge. The Altamont line, which entered Niles Junction after emerging from Niles Canyon, was part of SP's original 1860's transcontinental mainline.
All of these connections were under the authority of Western Pacific's Niles Tower operator.
In 1921 WP built its 23 mile San Jose Branch, which begins just railroad east of Niles Tower and continues south through Milpitas to the Williams Street Yard in San Jose (now closed). The Niles operator would control both the approach by WP to the SP crossing, and the San Jose Branch turnout. To say the Niles operator was a busy guy would be an understatement. During the halcyon days of both companies, in excess of 50 trains a day could pass through the Niles interlocking plant, giving the OP little time for rest!
Southern Pacific has always been the "big kid" in the Bay Area's railroad neighbothood.
Even with the Decoto Line's secondary-main status SP traffic levels have always been significant enough through Niles to find SP agreeing to incur 80% of maintenance costs to keep the tower staffed and running.
The Niles "op" had a direct connection to SP's Roseville dispatcher in addition to his own connection with WP dispatchers (and later UP) in Sacramento. Before the coming of Direct Train Control (DTC) the Decoto Line was train order territory and the operator at Niles was responsible for copying orders from the SP dispatcher for all of "The Friendly's" movements through the junction. The Niles "op" was also responsible for notifying both dispatchers whenever there was an earthquake: With Niles Tower sitting atop the Hayward Fault it was very evident to the towerman when a temblor occurred.
Working out of
Warm Springs, the SP's Hayward Local runs to Niles, then would call
the UP dispatcher to receive clearance to operate on the UP as far as East
Pleasanton, where SP maintained a small yard to service the Kaiser Sand
& Gravel plant. Before the closure of Niles Tower, the UP Niles operator
would line up the new crossover from the Decoto to the UP mainline, thus
allowing the local easy access to his trackage rights. After Niles ceased
operations, this duty was taken over by UP's dispatcher in Sacramento,
Of The Line
(Left) View from Niles Tower's second story.
By November 1 of that year, SP did away forever with train orders, converting the line to DTC. All train orders would now be radioed to each train by the Roseville dispatcher, giving block authority directly to train crews. With no need of an operator to copy SP train orders, SP notified UP it was no longer going to pay to keep Niles Tower open. With no one to pay the Niles OPs his salaries,UP closed the tower for good on January 16, 1986.
For five months the silent tower stood as witness to the growing changes to Bay Area railroading. There were rumors of a group wanting to move the tower from its perch on Alameda Creek to Rio Vista or San Jose, but most wondered if the frail tower would withstand the such a move. All speculation was put to rest when vandals (or the homeless) torched the upper story of the tower in June of that year (a fate eventually to befall SP's College Park Tower nearly 10 years later). Before the year was up a second fire finished off the structure and any hope of preserving this bit of history were quickly dashed. An inspection of the site would reveal only a small pile of charred studs and clapboard with an occasional piece of plumbing protruding from the mess.
Niles Tower was gone!
Today, Niles Junction sees more significantly more trains than when the tower stood. Not only is UP running more freights between Stockton and Oakland than before, but Amtrak and Caltrans are using the Decoto line for their San Jose-Sacramento Capitol service, running their passenger trains up the Centerville main between Newark and Niles*.
Today, little remains to mark the spot where the well-worn clapboard tower stood; not a nail nor hinge or sliver of wood. Niles Tower has joined the ranks of things-that-were, brought up by those of us who remember when towers stood and train orders hooped, before the days of maga-mergers and computerized trains. But go there on moonlite night and stand on the bare piece of ground where the tower once stood. And if you try real hard you can feel yourself in the warm glow of Niles tower; hear the clatter of the Underwood typewriter; see the silent silhouette copying train orders in preparation for a freight...the spirit of Niles Tower lives on.
N O T E S
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