- Education and Science»
- History & Archaeology»
- History of the Modern Era
Byron Hot Springs Resort: A Former Playground for the Rich and Famous
Natural Springs for Health
Located near my home in the shadow of Mount Diablo, are the ruins of a once flourishing spa and resort. As all of historical time goes, this is relatively modern, even though the site dates from the late 1800's.
The area was known to the local Indian tribes prior to that for its assorted hot springs and salt pans. Salt was a valuable resource in pioneer days, used not only for preserving meats, but also salt licks for cattle.
The land came under various ownerships dating back to the time of the Spanish explorers, followed by the Mexican control of early California. The earliest white visitors to the area were rough and ready types such as the gold miners leaving the mining operations of the gold rush days. They would camp in the area and partake of what was believed to be the health-giving properties of the spring waters.
How It Appears Today
The first recorded ownership of the area dates back to the days of the Mexican land grants, as California came into its own as part of the U.S. Territory, and ceased to be part of Mexico.
Eventually an owner emerged who decided to capitalize upon the natural springs...and built a fancy hotel and spa resort on the site. This was in 1878, and that first, wooden, structure burned to the ground some 23 years later.
The second, larger hotel was built on the grounds in 1902, and was designed by the same architect who fashioned the famous Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, California. Photographs of the second hotel do, in fact, bear a striking resemblance to "The Del," as the San Diego hotel is often called.
In 1912, this second structure also burned. The current building, which is much less grand in style, was built in 1914 of brick and concrete, in order to be fireproof.
Playground of the Rich and Famous
In its heyday, the Byron Hot Springs Resort was the playground of many famous folk, ranging from baseball player Lefty O'Doul to movie star Clark Gable. The grounds were lush, the recreational amenities many. There were golf and tennis, both very popular activities of the era, and of course, swimming in the restorative pools.
Guest rooms were luxurious by the standards of the day, given that each had its own private bath complete with toilet, tub, sink, and in some, over-the-tub showers as well. There were single rooms as well as adjoining suites. At least, this is true for the 1914 structure, the shell of which is what remains today.
Initially, acess was by stagecoach, from a railroad serving a nearby town. By the 1930s, in the last version of the hotel, there was a paved road leading to this welcome retreat from a hectic civilization.
The Army Seals the Fate
During World War II, the property was, unfortunately, acquired by the army as an "interrogation center," a euphemism, I suspect for POW camp. Additional buildings to serve the Army's purposes were constructed, including separate quarters for Japanese and German prisoners.
Worst of all, they plugged up the wonderful hot springs, ruining the main attribute of the site, and thereby insuring its future decay...and that is just what happened. After the Army left and released the property, it went through a few more changes of ownership, but none ever brought back the original glory of the place. How could they, with the springs lost?
A New Plan for Restoration Goes Awry
The current owner of the property originally had planned to truly restore the site to its days of wonder and pleasure, but various circumstances have prevented that from happening.
The bursting of the housing bubble and the downturn of the economy at large are the major factors responsible for this turn of events. While the original hotel was built for some $50,000, and its replacements for sums up to $150,000, the current projected restoration would run into the many millions of dollars. It is very sad indeed.
We spoke briefly with the caretaker during our visit to the site, and he told us the property is once again to be put up for sale, and the most likely future will include the bulldozing of what is left of the structures, and return of the land to its more-or-less virgin state to be used for cattle grazing. Indeed, there are already cattle in the area, and you must watch where you step.
The Full History
The full, detailed history is in this book by Carol Jenson of the East Contra Costa County Historical Society.
Following its heydey in the early 1900's, the area also served as a internment camp for interrogation of Japanese POW's. During this incarnation, it was re-named as "Camp Tracy."
Current State of Affairs
The terrible ruination of the hotel as we see it today is not wholly due to time and weather. Sadly, most of the damage has been done by vandals of the teenage kind. There is no sense of history or respect among the youth of today, and the area has become a target of every imaginable kind of vandalism.
How anyone can take pleasure in destroying the history of the area, just for the sake of the act is beyond me. I can well understand the destruction of hated symbols at the hands of an irate population ridding itself of tyrants, such as the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, or the destruction of the Saddam Hussein statue. But to engage in the wanton destruction of a place formerly associated with pleasant times, I cannot understand at all.
Worst of all are some low-life punks who think that going in and shooting things up or setting fires is the thing to do, making it a very dangerous place to be, especially after dark. This is obviously a serious liability issue for the owners, and a major contributing reason for unloading the property instead of going forward with the planned restoration.
According to the caretaker, as a result of these problems, the current owner has a strict no-trespassing policy, and the place is subject to random surveillance and patrol. Anyone caught vandalizing the property or discharging weapons will be arrested and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
For this reason, I've deliberately omitted any details or reference to the exact location of this piece of local history. It is a sad end to a glorious era, and a terrible commentary on the direction our society has taken.
However, I feel this is such an important part of the area's history that it truly needs to be registered as a historical landmark, and restored.