Kathy is not only an active historian in the East Contra Costa area, but she lives in Byron just down the road from the former spa that became a top-secret base during WWII.
I asked her about the status of the on-again, off-again proposals to bring Byron Hot Springs back to life. Once a major leisure-time destination spa, it’s now an abandoned, gutted and vandalized four-story red-brick hotel building surrounded by weed-covered grounds.
She reported that David Fowler, a developer in the area, for several decades had owned the 180-acre site that he wanted to use for a fly-in golf course — the Byron Airport is nearby — and spa hotel.
After all kinds of plans were floated, conflicts with Contra Costa County officials ensued and financing became problematic, Fowler was never able to follow through with his plans. A few months ago, a Los Angeles bank foreclosed on the property and took possession.
More recently, according to Kathy, the Contra Costa County Parks Department took a close look at the property as a possible location for a county park featuring natural California habitat.
“So far, I haven’t heard anything coming of that,” Kathy told me. “But they seemed interested.”
She added that plans to build a new state highway (No. 239) from Brentwood south to join the Byron Highway and Interstate 205 close to Tracy could spur redevelopment of Byron Hot Springs. The highway would run close to the property, so that might breathe new life into prospects for a renewal.
In the meantime, the three hot springs on the property are still running at just-right temperatures around 80 to 90 degrees.
Those sulfur hot springs were the reason a major spa resort was established there in the late 19th century. The original resort hotel, constructed in 1889, was rebuilt after a 1901 fire and again after that hotel burned down in 1912.
And, of course, the most intriguing chapter of the Byron Hot Springs history was as the ultra-secret prisoner of war interrogation center during WWII.
Some 3,200 Japanese and 250 German POWs were questioned there between 1943 and 1945 after their capture in the Pacific and European theaters of war.
The base had a mailing address of P.O. Box 651, Tracy, Cal., and that innocuous but real address was also used as the base’s official name in Military Intelligence Service documents. It was also known as “Camp Tracy,” but less so.
During the war, very little was known in Tracy and surrounding communities about what was going on at the former spa. It was assumed that military intelligence activities were taking place there, but not many people knew there were Japanese and German — and a few Italian — prisoners of war being interrogated there and housed in hotel rooms bugged with electronic listening devices.
After the war, the Greek Orthodox Church operated a retreat and seminary there for 11 years, but that was the last full use of the facility.
I’ll keep my eye on Byron Hot Springs. Someday, somehow, it should take on a new life.
Carbona’s fire engine
Several weeks ago, we ran a Remember When mystery photo of an abandoned former Tracy Rural Fire Department fire truck. It was located in Burson, an unincorporated town on the border of San Joaquin and Calaveras counties. But no one knew any of the history of the old engine.
Enter retired Tracy Division Chief Mark Mehring. He reported that the engine is a Van Pelt manufactured in Oakdale and delivered to the newly formed Tracy Rural Fire Protection District in 1946. The engine was housed at the rural fire department’s Carbona station on Linne Road for 25 years until it was retired from first-out service in 1969.
Mark noted that what was called Engine 4 was unique for having a 5-inch hard-suction preconnected (“squirrel
tail”) configuration that wrapped around the front of the radiator, so it could be deployed by one firefighter.
In those days, Tracy Rural had a single driver at each station. They drove engines to fires, where they were joined by volunteers.
And old-timers will remember that Emmett Light drove the abandoned engine for many years.
• Sam Matthews, publisher emeritus of the Tracy Press, can be reached at 830-4234 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.