Long before Michigan was a state and Niles was a city, Father Claude-Jean Allouez, a French Jesuit, established a mission along the St. Joseph River in the 1680s and began working with local Native Americans. It was one of the earliest European settlements in North America and the Great Lakes region.
In 1691, the French built Fort St. Joseph on the eastern shore the St. Joseph River, west of what is now Bond Street in Niles. It served as a trading and military outpost along the Old Sauk Trail, a well-known trading route that extended from the Mississippi River to Quebec. During the French and Indian War, the British took over the fort in October 1761. Nearly twenty years later, the Spanish flag was raised over the fort when Spanish troops raided the fort on February 12, 1781, and then left a day later to return to St. Louis. Finally, the United States became the fourth country to claim the area when the region became part of the Northwest Territory in 1795.
Many years later, American settlers established the village of Niles in 1829. The community was named after Hezekiah Niles, a respected news magazine editor and publisher from the early 1800s.
Niles' unique history earned it the nickname "The City of Four Flags", which represents each of the countries that have flown its colors in the area. The nickname was first used by the Four Flags Hotel in 1926 and has been used many times since.
While the Niles has a colorful past, the city is also known for its beautiful riverfront and a charming downtown area.
Stretching nearly two miles along the eastern shore of the St. Joseph River, Riverfront Park
is a beautiful
recreation area with picnic shelters, fishing spots, picturesque scenery, and much more. The entire park is connected by a wide paved trail.
On the north side of Riverfront Park, there is a large skate park that has several challenging ramps for skateboarders. Not far away, there is a large playground with a playscape and swings. The park's ampitheatre is used for concerts and events, such as the Niles Bluegrass Festival. Near Main Street, a veteran's memorial honors the heroes from Niles' past.
Two large wooden fishing piers extend over the river, a short distance from the paved trail. Nearby there is a
A kayak launch.
The south side of the Riverfront Park has a boat launch with plenty of parking. Many old-growth trees tower over this part of the park and are beautiful during the fall. Near the dam, there are two picnic shelters with scenic views.
Niles has many other parks for play and relaxation, ranging from small playgrounds to larger athletic complexes.
- Plym Park is second largest park in Niles and features tennis courts, basketball courts, ball diamonds,
and a soccer field. A small picnic shelter is located near the center of the park with an additional picnic area
on the south side of the park. A few pieces of playground equipment are a short walk away. On the north side of Marmont Street is
Plym Park Golf Course.
- Birkholm Park has a playground on the north side of Clarendon Avenue.
- Cable Street Park is a rectangular park with a large green space.
- Cass Street Park has a playscape and a basketball court. It's located at the intersection of Cass Street and Eighth Street.
- Clevenger Park is on the south side of Cherry Street and features a playground and picnic shelter.
- Eagle Street Park has a small playground on the south side of Eagle Street.
- Eastside Park is a nice, large park between Sixteenth Street and Seventeenth Street. The park has soccer fields, a basketball court, picnic shelter and playscapes.
- F.O.P. Park is on the west side of the St. Joseph River, near the end of State Street. The park has ball diamonds that are used for little league play.
- Island Park is on a narrow strip of land in the St. Joseph River. The park is accessible via a wooden walking bridge
near Parkway Street. Island Park has a picnic shelter and playground with scenic views of the river.
- Saathoff Park is on the north side of Maple Street at Ninth Street. The park has a soccer field, basketball court and
- Southside Park is a rectangular park on the Silverbrook Avenue. It features several basketball hoops, a baseball diamond, playground and a small picnic shelter.
- Thomas Stadium has a baseball diamond with parking available on the east side of the park.
- Troost Park has a playground on the south side of Ferry Street.
- Veteran's Memorial Park has a flower garden with four flags.
The St. Joseph River is considered a world-class fishing river and is known for steelhead, giant coho salmon, walleye, and smallmouth bass.
There are several great places to fish along the St. Joseph River, with many of them located at Riverside Park.
Two wooden fishing piers are located at the park (one is pictured below), and there are also places along the banks of the river where you can cast your lines.
Island Park has several spots along the river that are ideal for fishing. It's less than half of a mile north of the dam.
A valid fishing license is required to fish on Michigan lakes and waterways, and you can get a Michigan fishing license online at the Michigan DNR E-License web site
and at bait shops and sporting goods stores.
Boating & Kayaking
The St. Joseph River is a scenic waterway that is great for fishing and kayaking. Fishing boats can be launched from the boat launch on the south side of Riverfront Park and at the Marmont Street Boat Ramp. Kayaks can be launched at the same locations or from the kayak launch that is near Riverfront Park's fishing piers.
The scenery near the river includes old bridges and many old trees that are very beautiful during the fall.
Note: there is a dam less than half of a mile south of Island Park.
Just south of Plym Park, a paved trail on the north side of Niles winds along Second Street and then angles west to Front Street, connecting to the trail at Riverfront Park. The paved trail then continues for nearly two miles through Riverfront Park to the corner of Forth Street and Third Street. It's very popular for walking, jogging, and biking. The trail freatures some nice scenery along the St. Joseph River, such as old bridges and tall trees that are very colorful during the fall.
If you want to walk around Niles' nice downtown, you can leave the paved trail at Riverfront Park and walk on the sidewalk along Main Street. You can walk to the Chamber of Commerce, City Hall, or the Fort St. Joseph Museum.
Niles has two bike routes for cyclists:
- Using the paved road shoulder along M-139, cyclists can ride between Niles and Berrien Springs. The 10-mile route passes farmland and rolling hills and generally has moderate vehicle traffic. The road shoulder is over two feet wide in most spots. You can access the route from Plym Park by riding along the outside of the park's drive.
- On the south side of Niles, cyclists can ride on the paved road shoulder of Main Street to
US-12. The route is approximately two miles long.
- Starting at Fort Street, there is a paved road shoulder bike route along Third Street that goes north to Silverbrook Avenue.
With a vibrant past that dates back to the 1600s, Niles has numerous locations and buildings that are historically significant.
- The Fort St. Joseph Archeological Area has been the focus of Western Michigan University professors and students, who have been working
on an archaeological project at the Fort St. Joseph location since 2002. Western Michigan University's field school annually hosts an open house at the site during the summer, allowing visitors to view artifacts that have been recovered and learn about the project. Summer camps are also offered for younger students, teachers and adults who want to learn about archaeology and the historic site.
- The Fort St. Joseph Museum has exhibits that describe the history of the fort, as well as exhibits about the Underground Railroad and Niles. The museum's Lakota Indian collection contains 12 pictographs drawn by Chief Sitting Bull. The museum offers free admission and is open on select days of the week.
- Niles City Hall is located in an historic mansion on Main Street. The Fort St. Joseph Museum is located in the original carriage house on the property, behind the mansion.
The mansion was completed in 1884 and owned by Henry A. Chapin, who opened the first general store in Niles with S.S. Griffin in 1846. Later, Chapin and his sons established an insurance and loan agency. Besides his interests in Niles, Chapin owned land in Iron Mountain, and the Chapin Mine was established in his name in 1879. The mine produced significant royalties for Chapin, up to $300,000 annually until the Great Depression forced the mine to close.
- Historic churches in Niles include St. Mary's Catholic Church (1866) and Trinity Church (1858).
- Niles Rail Depot was completed in 1892 and still operates as an Amtrak train station. Its Romanesque Revival architecture was designed to impress travellers on their way to Chicago.
The train depot has appeared in a few movies. In 1981's The Continental Divide, it was featured in a scene with John Belushi and Blair Brown. Years later, the depot was part of Robert DeNiro's Midnight Run and John Candy's Only the Lonely.
- Father Claude-Jean Allouez was the first French Jesuit to arrive in the area, establishing a mission in the 1680s. He reportedly baptized over 10,000 individuals before his death in 1689. The grave site of Father Allouez is located east of the Fort St. Joseph site.
- Four Flags Hotel at the corner of Fourth and Main Streets opened on July 6, 1926. The hotel was the first in Niles to use the term "Four Flags" as a reference to the area's heritage. It was designed by Chicago architect Charles W. Nicol and was considered one of the most modern hotels in the region. Guests who stayed at Four Flags during its heyday include Al Capone, Eleanor Roosevelt, Knute Rockne and Truman Capote.
- Niles has several Michigan Historical Markers that describe places and people from the town's past. The green markers are in locations that are considered significant by the Michigan Historical Commission. Markers are located at city hall, Four Flags Hotel, St. Mary's Catholic Church and several other places in Niles.
More About Niles
The 12th Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment was recruited and trained in Niles during the Civil War. Colonel Francis Quinn organized the unit, which included 1000 officers and men. The regiment fought during the Battle of Shiloh, which happened April 6-7, 1862, in southwestern Tennessee. The heroic men are remembered during the annual
Niles Brandywine Civil War Re-Enactment
in Niles Township.
The annual Niles Riverfest
is one of Southwestern Michigan's most popular family festivals. The event happens in August and features live entertainment, a raft race, boat races, tasty food, craft booths, kids games, and much more.
The Four Flags Area Apple Festival
happens each fall at the corner of Lake Street and 17th Street. Carnival rides, food vendors, arts and crafts booths, and live entertainment are part of the festivities.
The annual Niles Bluegrass Festival
brings live bluegrass music to the Riverfront Park Ampitheatre.
In January, the city hosts the annual Hunter Ice Festival
. The event showcases more than 150 ice sculptures in the the downtown area. The festival is named in honor of the Hunters Brothers Ice and Ice Cream Company, which owned the first documented commercial ice harvesting operation in Michigan.
During the summer, the Dairy Queen on Oak Street is a great spot to get some ice cream.