Niles Canyon Railway offers trip back to region's train roots

Nonprofit volunteers, local dignitaries celebrate 150th anniversary of Transcontinental Railroad

Niles Canyon Railway volunteers and local dignitaries (right) re-enact the famed historic photograph depicting the original "golden spike" ceremony at Promontory Summit in Utah in 1869. Though often recognized as representing the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, the Promontory event occurred when crews finished the rail line from Sacramento to the East Coast. The actual ocean-to-ocean connection, with the final leg in the East Bay, was opened four months later on Sept. 6, 1869.

All aboard!

The Niles Canyon Railway, operated by the nonprofit Pacific Locomotive Association, gives Bay Area residents and visitors an opportunity to experience history first-hand just minutes south of Pleasanton on weekends throughout the year.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the nonprofit runs regular rides on diesel and steam trains between Sunol and Niles in Fremont as part of what is considered the only railroad operating on an original and best-preserved alignment of the Transcontinental Railroad that helped shape the history of Northern California in the 19th century.

Earlier this month, the volunteers took their living history museum experience one step further -- into the past -- with a three-day commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the true completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Culminating a summer of rides and special events themed "Connecting the Country" and "Connecting with History," the sesquicentennial celebration Sept. 6-8 brought out civic leaders, railroad preservationists and train aficionados in period costumes, among others, and included re-enactments of the "golden spike" ceremony along Niles Canyon rail line.

"Driving of the golden spike completed the last link of the Transcontinental Railroad from coast to coast, opening the West to more rapid development by reducing travel time to under a week from coast to coast," said Pleasanton City Councilwoman Kathy Narum, who attended a dignitaries' event at Niles Canyon Railway on Sept. 6 -- the actual anniversary date.

"While watching the golden spike being manually driven into a railroad tie symbolizing the linking of the two railroads, it was difficult for me to begin to imagine the labor involved to create a track bed and then the actual laying of the track itself," she added. "This linkage really allowed for the existence of the Tri-Valley, including Pleasanton, and the growth that then followed with the railroad."

The May 1869 golden spike ceremony in Promontory, Utah that is etched into American history represented the connection between the East Coast and Sacramento, but it wasn't until Sept. 6, 1869 that the final gap in California was opened, fully connecting the Pacific coast to the Atlantic seaboard.

"This last link is historically important for the surrounding communities served, as their very existence and sustained growth was predicated on the railway passing through them. It is also historically important for the railroad community, locally and nationwide," said Gail Hedberg, marketing manager for the Pacific Locomotive Association.

The nonprofit's volunteer train crew re-enacted the historic event during the anniversary weekend with two recently restored Baldwin steam locomotives pulling a vintage train through Niles Canyon to the 1869 location of driving the original golden spike, Hedberg said.

The Sept. 6 ceremony included an historical presentation from association president Henry Baum and Fremont City Councilman Yang Shao reading a proclamation from the city in honor of the anniversary.

Also onhand was Fremont resident Gerry Low-Sabado, a community preservationist and fifth-generation Chinese-American whose great-grandfather was a worker who helped build the former rail line between Monterey and Pacific Grove. The special presentation spotlighted the importance and impact of Chinese immigrants during railway construction in California, as does the association's Sunol Depot museum.

The Niles Canyon Railway is winding down its 2019 season of regular rides, which continue on the first and third Sundays in October. For more information, visit

Train of Lights

The annual Train of Lights program extends Niles Canyon Railway rides through the holiday season with a special hour-long evening trip through the canyon complete with refreshments, music and holiday cheer aboard antique coaches and open cars.

The rides will take place on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from Nov. 22 to Dec. 30, excluding Christmas Day. Tickets go on sale starting Oct. 12 at 10 a.m.; prices will vary.

Niles Canyon Stroll and Roll

Looking for another way to explore Niles Canyon?

This Sunday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. a portion of Niles Canyon Road will be open to only hikers, runners and bicyclists.

The third Niles Canyon Stroll and Roll event will see a 6.4-mile stretch between Old Canyon Road in Fremont and Main Street in Sunol closed to all automobile traffic as part of an awareness campaign by local agencies hoping to bring attention to a proposal to build a new recreational trail through the canyon.

To learn more, call 510-272-6692 or visit

Editor's note: See the full photo album on the Pleasanton Weekly's Facebook page.

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5 people like this
Posted by Bobbie
a resident of Pheasant Ridge
on Sep 22, 2019 at 9:58 pm

I don’t understand. There’s so many places bicyclists can ride where it’s safe with ample designated lanes for them to travel. I am a sunol resident and frequent Niles Canyon at least four times a week. It is not safe for the bicyclists on the two lane windy road. Top that off with majority of the bicyclists NOT following basic road laws. They don’t stop at stop signs or signal to turn. It’s frustrating. Often times I’m doing 6-10 MPH and can’t pass a by bicyclist without jeopardizing the safety of the person on the bike, opposing traffic and my own safety! I do not think bicyclists should be allowed on Niles until something is done where they have their own designated safe trail and/or lane. Niles was just repaved and lined so I don't see a bike lane anytime in the near future. I think there has to be an alternative route for them. But not on two lane roads that can’t accommodate a cyclist and a car safely at the same time.

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