I Dreamed: The Rod Lauren Story

Here is a million-dollar baby. Maybe.

This is the picture: Male, five-eleven, the muscular physique of “Mr. America” and brooding, dark good looks reminiscent of the late James Dean.

Talents: Acting and singing.

Personality: Partly cloudy, with occasional thunder.

Name: Rod Lauren.

And maybe he will be the biggest star of the coming decade.

– “Birth of a Star” by Martin Cohen
TV-Radio Mirror, October 1960


On the day he was born – on March 26, 1940, in Fresno – his parents named him Roger Lawrence Strunk.1Confusingly, Roger’s “official” entry in the Fresno County birth records for 1939 clearly shows his name on arrival as Rogers Laurence Strunk, and his father as Laurence Jess Strunk, both of which appear to be errors. To add to the confusion, Roger’s name in the 1940 federal census appears to have been reported as Rodgers T. Strunk. By the time he turned twenty, he would be heard on radio stations across the United States (as well as in Canada, Great Britain and several other countries), written about in newspapers and magazines – from his hometown Tracy Press to Life, Time, and Parade – and seen on national television with Ed Sullivan, Bob Hope, Perry Como, Steve Allen and on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” known now as “moody, sullen-faced” Rod Lauren.

This is the story of Rod Lauren, and of Roger Strunk.

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The Ballad of Skipper Hudson

From the front page of the September 10, 1944, edition of the Tracy Press:

Skipper Hudson
Laid to Rest

Passes Away Saturday
In Stockton After
Short Illness

Skipper Hudson is dead. The end came early last Saturday morning in a Stockton hospital.

Born in San Francisco in 1859, he lived as an individualist and died the same way, refusing aid from anyone, working for his living until the very end of his life and maintaining the fiery independent spirit after his weary flesh and blood became too weak to carry out the dictates of his mind.

On the evening of March 2 he became ill while sitting in a restaurant. Assisted to his room in the Roberts building by his son, Charles Hudson, and E. C. Wyman, Skipper told his helpers to leave him alone — he would be well and working by morning.

But 85 years had taken their toll. Skipper did not rally. He was taken to a Stockton hospital where he remained only because he did not have the physical strength to get up and leave.

For the past 15 years he had been caretaker of the Roberts building, corner Central and Eighth. He not only looked after the heating plant and the maintenance of the building that houses stores, offices and lodge rooms, but he also kept an eagle eye on the occupants, using fatherly and sometimes stern disciplinary measures whenever the conduct of his charges displeased him.

His parents came from New York. After rounding the Horn, they landed at San Francisco in 1850. As a small boy, Skipper recalled that he took the steamer from San Francisco to Antioch, thence to Banta by overland stage. One uncle, Rufus Saddlemire, had preempted land near the spot of the present highway overpass. Two other uncles had also settled in the vicinity at what is now Tracy.

During these visits Skipper told amazing tales of the hundreds of deer that roamed the high grass on the present site of Tracy. The grass, he said, was as high as a man’s head. He often told how millions of wild ducks and geese blackened out the sun when they rose from the swamps that have since been drained.

He distinctly remembered the building of the old Central Pacific line from Sacramento through Niles in 1868-69. He recalled the hordes of Chinese Coolies who looked like swarms of ants as they pushed the rails down from the Altamont into the valley. The first transcontinental train passed through the site of Tracy in 1869.

C.P. Huntington Steam Locomotive (Photo)

This photo of the venerable C.P. Huntington steam locomotive, now on display at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, accompanied Skipper Hudson’s front-page obituary in the Tracy Press. Mr. Hudson is at left in the undated photo.

After graduating from Heald’s Business College, San Francisco, Skipper took up railroading in preference to prospecting for gold or raising livestock. He helped build the Port Costa line which joined the Niles line in 1878. This event was the reason Tracy was founded in that year. The buildings from Ellis were moved here and the roundhouse was moved here from Lathrop.

For a number of years he was brakeman and conductor between Sacramento and Oakland. At one time, George Gaylord, retired Southern Pacific superintendent, worked as a brakeman under Skipper. In later years, when these two met, old days were recalled with the appropriate language of the times.

After taking Mary Yoos as his bride in 1885, he came to Tracy for his permanent residence. He quit railroading to manage the Ludwig ranch on the present site of the Quartermaster Depot. Later he worked on the Sierra Railroad, on the dredging operations when the islands were reclaimed, and then at the creamery that is now the Dairymaid plant. He became caretaker of the Roberts building in 1929.

His name was Charles Hudson. His father, Charles Hudson, died in 1919, and his mother lived until 1923. A brother, Alfred Hudson, died in 1914.

He leaves a son, Charles (Roxy) Hudson, superintendent of utilities for the City of Tracy; three grandchildren, Mrs. Wadenia Burke, Tracy; Floyd E. Hudson, warrant officer at sea with the US Navy, and Herbert Hudson, ensign in the US Navy, Dallas, Texas. The two grandsons were not able to attend the final rites. He was the great grandfather of Doris Marie Hudson, Dallas, and Nancy Carleen Burke, Tracy.

Friends paid final tribute at funeral services held Tuesday afternoon from DeMark Memorial chapel with Rev. James Otter of the Presbyterian church officiating.

Interment was in Tracy cemetery. Pallbearer were E.C. Wyman, Ray Vogt, M. B. Warren, Warren Shaw, Pat Bone and William Krohn.

Charles "Skipper" Hudson Gravestone (Photo)

Skipper Hudson’s gravestone at Tracy Public Cemetery.

A New Traincam In Stockton

I’ve been agitating for a webcam near the busy Stockton Diamond for years, and now – thanks to SouthWest RailCams and cam host Geiger Manufacturing – we’ve got one.

The traincam is pointed directly from Geiger’s facility toward the Diamond, where Union Pacific and BNSF rail traffic intersects.

Amtrak and Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) passenger trains also traverse the interchange.

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Mileposts: Byron Hot Springs (MP 69.9)

Byron Hot Springs, a once elegant and prestigious resort and spa in rural eastern Contra Costa County, a few miles up the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks from Tracy on the Byron Highway to Brentwood and Martinez, now lies in ruins, hidden from view of the thousands of commuters and other travelers that pass it every day of the week.

In earlier times, the hot springs were utilized by the local native population for bathing and for the water’s perceived medicinal qualities. Upon the arrival of European settlers in the area, most notably the infamous John Marsh, the natives were driven away or forced into servitude.

Byron Hot Springs Ad (Image)

The springs were developed into a tourist resort used by the well-to-do from far and wide; it is known that baseball great Joe DiMaggio vacationed regularly at the hotel during the off-season, and numerous stars from vaudeville and the early days of Hollywood movies – including, according to legend, Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Mae West, and Clark Gable – also sought respite at the resort.

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Cornering The Market: Neighborhood Stores In Tracy

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article is slightly off-topic. There is little, if anything, about trains in this article.

While driving around Tracy, in these days of sprawling supermarkets – Safeway, Raleys, Save-Mart among them – you may not notice the numerous corner markets that dot our town.

Most of these corner markets, several of which aren’t actually on a corner, per se, date back several decades, to a time before the large supermarkets offered one-stop convenience for everything your family needs.

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Mileposts: Ayala (MP 70.9)

On the Union Pacific Railroad’s tracks through Tracy, Calif., east of the Tracy ACE station near the corner of Tracy Blvd. and Linne Road, is a mile-long spur at a junction listed on the railway’s timetable as “Ayala.”

The spur predates the  construction of the ACE station, and was put in place by the Western Pacific Railroad to serve a handful of industries in the area off Gandy Dancer Drive near Tracy Blvd. and Valpico Road.

Southern Pacific Diesel Shed, Tracy

For nearly five decades, the Southern Pacific Railroad utilized two massive roundhouses at its railyard near downtown Tracy. The roundhouses were constructed to service and repair steam locomotives at Tracy, which was a major waypoint on the SP during the first half of the Twentieth Century.

SP Tracy Turntable (Photo, Circa Early 1950s)

A view of the SP’s Tracy turntable, looking between the old roundhouses, circa early 1950s.

In the mid-1950s, the Southern Pacific began the complete phase-out of steam locomotives, replacing their entire fleet with more reliable diesel-electric locomotives, which required substantially less maintenance.

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Mileposts: Holly Sugar Corp. Refinery, Tracy (MP 73.5)

It’s perhaps the most visible landmark across the flatlands of western San Joaquin County – a cluster of tall, white silos bearing the Holly Sugar brand – which can be seen from miles away, towering above the landscape north of Tracy.

The Holly Sugar refinery in Tracy’s rural outskirts went online in 1917 as the Pacific Sugar Corporation. The plant originally received beets by way of trucks, and later via barges that utilized a man-made waterway known as “Sugar Cut” that diverts from Tom Paine Slough and Old River, north of Tracy.

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Union Pacific “Mothball Fleet” In Tracy

A recent downturn in railroad revenues has turned the once-busy Union Pacific Railroad yard in Tracy into a pasture of sorts.

The UP’s yard here, which extends east from the Eleventh Street overpass downtown nearly to the town of Banta, has become the “rest home” for about 85 of the railroad’s locomotives that have been put out to pasture, stored here in hopes of a future rebound in freight shipments via rail.

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Mileposts: Bethany (MP 75.7)

The village of Bethany could, once upon a time, be found along the Southern Pacific Railroad’s Martinez-to-Tracy extension, just a few miles outside the latter city’s limits.

These days, few signs remain of Bethany: an old farm road that ends near the tracks is perhaps the most significant remnant. (A reservoir in the nearby Livermore Hills is named for the town, but is several miles distant.)

The Central Pacific Railroad built a depot at Bethany around 1878 along the extension, which was constructed as the San Pablo & Tulare Railroad; in the early Twentieth Century, this section of tracks appeared on USGS maps – including the one below from 1914 – as the Southern Pacific’s “San Francisco and New Orleans Line.”

Today, it is known to railheads as the “Mococo Line.” It was the construction of this extension that led directly to the birth of Tracy at the end of the 1870s.

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