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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you’ve taken a load of trash to the dumps here in Tracy, you can’t avoid the solid bump of crossing what appears to be an abandoned set of railroad tracks protected by mute crossbuck warning signs a hundred or so feet down MacArthur Drive south of Linne Road.
The tracks are seldom used but are not entirely abandoned these days. Occasionally — very occasionally — the Union Pacific will spot a couple of freight cars loaded with steel coils there, alongside the Calaveras Materials rock grinders and the Teichert Aggregates entry gate on MacArthur.
When visiting the Tracy Historical Museum, if you only see what is directly in front of you, you may miss something magnificent farther above eye level.
Among those “somethings” is a rare and wonderful mural by the Oakland-born artist Edith Hamlin (1902–1992), whose other works included murals at Coit Tower and Mission High School in San Francisco, and at the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C.
Edith Hamlin at work on the Mission High School mural, circa 1936.
Shortly after the United States Post Office opened at the corner of 12th and Adam streets here in 1937, Miss Hamlin painted a series of three murals depicting Tracy’s early history.
Fresh into our yardmaster’s office today is this big win off of eBay, showing Southern Pacific Railroad SD-9 4426 and partner(s?) leading a string of cars under the old Eleventh Street overpass in 1981, headed out of town toward Banta and Mossdale.
This view can no longer be replicated for several reasons, not the least of which is the tear-down and rebuild of the old overpass.