Union City, CA, USA

Charlie Chaplin's "The Tramp" (1915)

One of the most famous scenes in all of cinema was filmed here in the hills above Niles, along Alameda Creek, a stream that drains a vast watershed in Sunol and beyond. It's the quirky, significant conclusion to The Tramp, Chaplin's first truly great film. It is the ending, in fact, that distinguishes the film from Chaplin's earlier slapstick, and by the end of 1915, Chaplin was an American celebrity.

All of which sidesteps the key question: what was Charlie Chaplin doing in rural California in 1915? That's a question that film historian David Kiehn has been exploring at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, on the town's main boulevard. Chaplin's employer at the time, the early film studio Essanay, had opened a studio in Niles to shoot westerns with Broncho Billy Anderson, the first cowboy film star. Chaplin signed with Essanay and moved to Niles, where he spent three months making five films. By all accounts, his relationship with the town's residents was not so good, but he left his mark with this one unforgettable scene.

Niles itself existed largely because of its position at the base of an alluvial fan that made the area fertile. The canyon with which the town shares its name was also an obvious route through the hills that separate the Bay from central California. So, the Central Pacific Railroad used Niles Canyon to connect Oakland to Sacramento in the original configuration of the transcontinental railroad from 1869 to 1879.

Kiehn tracked down the location where it was shot, approximately 1.8 miles up Niles Canyon Road from its intersection with Mission Boulevard, not far from where the first trains steamed to the Bay from the east.

Learn more about the Bay at the Oakland Museum of California's exhibition, Above and Below: Stories From Our Changing Bay.