A few cars are parked near the dead end of Old Canyon Road. Groups of high-school students cut class and drive quietly to the end. They have just picked up six-packs and have loose plans to meet some friends for a party. They are headed to a hideaway where they know they will not get caught or be bothered by police or parents. Some stop a few streets away to avoid arousing suspicion. Others heave bicycles or even motorcycles over the metal gate, which features a San Francisco Water Department “No Trespassing” sign. Some trespass from the highway and others climb a steep hill from the railroad tracks. Still others wait until nightfall to join. It is a mix of punkers, stoners, motorcyclists, hobos, and New Age hippies. They are there to party. There is always a party.
They are headed to the “Secret Sidewalk” of Niles Canyon. This is how Bryan Wake, Andrew Borg, and Terry O’Hern remember the days of their youth in the 1970s and 1980s — adventuring through East Bay Regional Park District land and patches of private property to reach an abandoned, concrete aqueduct.
The Secret Sidewalk is, for many residents of South Alameda County, a secret getaway from suburban civilization. A jump over the metal gate, a climb under a barbed-wire fence, and a precarious hike along some railroad tracks and up a hill takes the trespasser to an infamous aqueduct wide and sturdy enough to function as a concrete sidewalk. Today, this enclosed concrete tunnel still weaves its incongruous way through the hills and valleys of Niles Canyon. “You have to really go through some hoops to get there,” said Fremont Police spokesperson Bill Veteran. “It is kind of tough to raid. That’s why it’s popular.”
Well-known locally, the hollow six-foot wide structure — officially the Niles Canyon Aqueduct — for many decades carried the water of Alameda Creek from the Sunol Filter Galleries through the canyon to Niles Reservoir and beyond to San Francisco. According to Betsy Lauppe Rhodes, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, once the Sunol Valley Water Treatment Plant was constructed in the 1960s, the Niles aqueduct was almost entirely decommissioned. But the structure remained. Use of this tunnel as a sidewalk and a passageway was only just beginning to surge at the time, Veteran remembered. Calls to the police were a lot more frequent thirty years ago, Veteran said, and are virtually unheard-of today.
But government officials are once again considering the Secret Sidewalk. The East Bay Regional Park District, which owns most of the land surrounding the sidewalk, and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which owns the aqueduct itself, are currently discussing the potential uses for the structure.
A year ago, the utilities commission began making plans to finish decommissioning the aqueduct. “We don’t patrol this location like we used to when it was part of the system,” noted agency Lands Management Division Manager Tim Ramirez. “We want to make sure we minimize risk and protect public safety. We don’t authorize recreational use. It is not built for that purpose.” Officials decided a good solution was to break down the structure, focusing first on an elevated portion where the aqueduct spans a fifty-foot ravine. This part of the sidewalk, known among teen travelers as “The Bridge,” is little more than a huge liability for the aqueduct’s owner.
But when East Bay Park District supervisor Steve Quick and his colleagues heard the news, they sent a letter to the agency asking it to halt planning so that they could discuss converting the aqueduct into a legitimate hiking trail. “It would make a really neat trail connection,” Quick said in an interview, arguing that it would not only possess the cultural and historical value of a trail that has been used for decades, but it could also function as the only safe pathway through the canyon.
Although it has not yet discussed the idea with the community, the park district is currently researching how it could convert this abandoned aqueduct into a functional component of its trail network. Creating an actual hiking path out of a hollow concrete water tube would not be easy, Quick said. After all, the “sidewalk” is inaccessible, has plenty of potentially fatal drop-offs, has never been tested for endurance, and it weaves through some private property. Park district officials are currently working to address these problems, and utility district officials said they are content to wait for the park district’s decision.
While locals generally agree that activity on the sidewalk has declined, in some adolescent circles it is still an exciting hangout spot. “Oh, it is still the place to go hang out and make out,” said local retailer Bruce Cates, whose son often went to the sidewalk when he was young. Many teens still head there to party or just to hike, said high-school student Casey Jennings and recent graduate Steve Christy. “These are the little secrets that get passed down from generation to generation here,” added musician Michael McNevin.
Nearby home owners say they are extremely frustrated by the sidewalk’s continued usage. And some are trying every way they can to deter outsiders from hiking, trespassing, or partying there. Some put up threatening signs that say “Smile, you’re on camera,” while others scold suspicious teens who approach the dead end. Several people who recently hiked the sidewalk warned about one man who threatens travelers by riding through the canyon on a four-wheeler with night-vision goggles while firing his rifle.
David Cartwright, who owns a lot of the private property where the sidewalk lies, didn’t want to talk about it at all for fear that publicity would attract more trespassers. “Young people come out here but there is nothing to see,” he said. “Let them know that anyone who comes out here will be arrested.”
Don Dewey, a member of the city’s homeless taskforce, said that the homeless population around and sometimes underneath the aqueduct also has decreased significantly in recent years. However, multiple encampments are still visible from the path today. And despite neighborhood efforts to discourage use of the Secret Sidewalk, many continue to enjoy the danger of trespassing to tag and to party.
Washington High School student Jennings heard about the sidewalk after questioning his father about the large white tube he saw while driving through the canyon. His father, Barry Jennings, who had gone there as a child himself, told him what it was. “I am 55 and have a very good memory, and I have never seen anything like it,” the elder Jennings said. “It is so wooded and then all of the sudden you have this urban art that kind of smacks you right in the face.”
Years after Casey first asked his father about the graffiti-tagged concrete protruding from the canyon, he asked for directions to actually get there. The elder Jennings reluctantly told his son which fence to jump and how to cross the railroad tracks before reaching the steep hill that would lead Casey and his fourteen-year-old peers to the structure. Casey said he has since gone to the sidewalk about 25 to 30 times. “It is really more of a nighttime scene,” he said. “It really is a cool place to be — if you are smart about it.”
But recent graduate Christy, who has gone to the sidewalk since middle school, said he doesn’t go much at night because the mysterious homeless population can be threatening. “We go into the train tunnel, hang out there, then go and climb the pillars to the clay factory,” Christy said. In the middle of the canyon and close to the sidewalk sit the remains of a clay-tile factory that locals say has been abandoned for decades. And, of course, this is another destination hotspot for parties. Near the factory, and throughout the sidewalk, cans that once held beer or spray paint colorfully litter the grass alongside the aqueduct’s brightly tagged walls.
Christy heard about the sidewalk from an older brother who presented it to him as a kind of challenge. “He described this bad place,” he said. “And it made me want to go back there and find out for myself.”
Indeed, while excursions to the sidewalk can be relatively calm, most regulars admit that frequent visitors are bound to have at least one memorable and negative experience. And many have lots of wild tales to share. Casey Jennings reported that he and his friends once witnessed a KKK meeting just off of the sidewalk where they were hiking. Five guys in white hoods stood holding crosses near the clay factory, he remembered. He and his friends didn’t stay long to gather any further details. He also remembers watching from a distance as two evidently homeless men engaged in a violent fight.
On a quiet afternoon hike a few years ago, Christy and two other friends suddenly heard the sounds of an ATV four-wheeler roaring in the distance. Soon they saw an angry man driving toward them to chase them away. They scurried up the steep hill to the sidewalk where they ran from the man, who was rumored to possess a gun. “It definitely got my heart moving a bit,” he recalled.
Andrew Borg, who went frequently in the early 1980s, starting at age sixteen, heard of several people who died while traveling the sidewalk. He recalled once being followed by some dark figures that he and his friends saw in the bushes. He also said he had interesting encounters with homeless people.
Terry O’Hern, who went there as a teen in the 1970s, said that he would usually steal some beers, grab his motorcycle, and hop the fence. Only students from “the smoking area” of his high school would go; the academics and jocks weren’t interested. For O’Hern, being sober on the sidewalk was a rarity.
“It was the place for social rebels,” added Bryan Wake, a frequent 1970s trespasser. “You would meet people out there or run into people you haven’t seen in a long time.” Wake said people loved to party on the sidewalk’s precarious “bridge” — the very part the SF utilities commission recently wanted to deconstruct. Wake said he often liked to ride his bicycle across the sidewalk, even if it was littered with glass and overlooking a fifty-foot drop.
Most of these adults look back on their time at the Secret Sidewalk abashedly, laughing at their youthful misdeeds. Many are also excited that it has the potential to become a legitimate hiking trail. “Yeah, I would be more inclined to go,” O’Hern said when he heard the news. “I am not as young as I used to be.”