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.
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.
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.