Niles was known as a Pacific railroad hub and was home to the Essanay Movie Studios from 1912 to 1916. Bronco Billy and Charlie Chaplin starred in many silent films that were made in Niles. See below: Essanay Comes to Niles
The spotlight (a Klieg light) and the wooden door (from the barn that was used for filming different scenes) were from the Essanay studio days.
Other items in the exhibit include a brick made at the California Pressed Brick Company (See below: Niles Brick), on the floor is a split paver produced by Kraftile, which was located in Niles, the sign from Darrow’s Bakery in Niles, and a 75th anniversary plate for Essanay Studios.
Photographs include: the original film headquarters, an open stage rigged alongside the barn from 1912, two units of work on an open stage, Gilbert Anderson as Bronco Billy, and Charlie Chaplin in 1915.
Essanay Comes to Niles
In the township register on April 6, 1912 front-page news featured “Essanay Film and Fifty-Two Employees Choose this Spot as Most Suitable for Pictures.”
A few years earlier in Chicago, George E. Spoor, fancier, and Gilbert M. Anderson, director, had formed partnership – The Essanay Film Manufacturing Company; the “Essanay” a combination of their last names two initials (S and A).
Establishing their Western headquarters in Frank Mortimer’s empty barn on Second between G and H Streets, the movie company began producing one and two reel films. Interior scenes were shot inside the barn while Main Street, picturesque Niles Canyon, and the Vallejo Mill were used for outdoor work.
Anderson wrote story essentials at night, and then briefed his players and shot scenes the next day. Twelve to fourteen minutes were standard running times for the films.
Soon Anderson assumed the role of director-actor and was billed as “ Bronco Billy”, a roll that was the forerunner to the Western cowboy known today.
By 1915, Charlie Chaplin had signed a contract with Essanay. His famous image of derby, frock coat, baggy pants, big shoes, mustache, and cane trudging down Niles Canyon was created for “The Tramp” one of five films he made during his three month stay.
Film production came to an abrupt end on April 16, 1916 when Essanay Company closed its studio after having made 350 early Westerns.
The Klieg Light
The Klieg light is a modern synonym of the word limelight. In earlier times, white lime was used to produce intense light for laminating the theater stage. Metaphorically, people, famous and infamous, continue to be in the limelight or klieg light, as popular media trains its spotlight on them.
The Niles Brick
In 1907, a large deposit of clay was discovered in the mouth of Niles Canyon while making an excavation for the new Western Pacific Railway Company’s line. This deposit was located one mile east of Niles on the south side of Alameda Creek. Several businessmen in Niles quickly formed a company to purchase the 53-acre tract, mine the clay, and build a brick-making plant. They formed the California Pressed Brick Company with capital stock of $1,000,000, divided into 1,000,000 shares. The company headquarters was located at the Niles State Bank, Niles, California. John S. Smith was hired as the ceramic engineer and was responsible for the building of the brick plant and kilns.
The clay was tested and suitable for pressed building brick and conduits for electric wires. Early products from the Niles plant were common building brick and vitrified pavers. The paver was light-fired and embossed with large raised letters on the face spelling “NILES”. The pavers were not good enough for streets, but San Francisco architects liked to use them for building bricks. These bricks were produced from 1909 to 1911, and sold to local brickyards around the San Francisco Bay. About 50 men were employed at the plant during this period. Because the price of building bricks was depressed, this company was not successful in selling its bricks, and was forced to close in august 1911.
For more information about bricks in Washington Township see the California Bricks website.