Lathrop and Tracy share the same bloodline — the engineer who Leland Stanford hired to lay out the Central Pacific Railroad tracks in the valley.
The engineer opted to name both points on the railroad he was designing after a friend by the name of Lathrop J. Tracy.
While the railroad gave Lathrop its first big economic boost with the creation of the “Y” used to switch trains as well as its deadly footnote in 19th century California history involving the slaying of a former State Supreme Court justice, it started as part of Captain Charles Weber’s land grant.
John Morrison purchased eight sections of 2,560 acres from Weber on Sept. 20, 1853. It included 160 acres that constitute the heart of Lathrop.
It originally was named Wilson’s Station. Its namesake — Thomas A. Wilson — was among those that opened the Le Baron & Co. store in French Camp.
While the Central Pacific and Union Pacific meeting on May 10, 1869 at Promontory, Utah, brought the lines that started in Sacramento and St Louis together, the transcontinental railroad’s final link to go from the East Coast to the San Francisco Bay wasn’t completed until November 1869 when the bridge crossing at Mossdale (which is now part of Lathrop) was built over the San Joaquin River. For a number of months passengers going coast to coast had to disembark trains going either direction and take a ferry across the river.
Stanford — acting in concert with his Big Four partners of Collis Huntington, Chares Crocker, and Mark Hopkins – sought to secure permission of Stockton officials to lay out tracks for the Western Pacific Railroad in the region after the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. When Stockton turned him down, he moved his route south to Wilson’s Station.
The “Y” – whose tracks are still in place today — was used for switching and forming trains. It was centered round a roundhouse with space to service 12 engines. Although only the tracks remain today, it was the largest “Y” and roundhouse operations in California at the time and one of the largest west of the Mississippi River.
In 1871 Stanford opened a grand restaurant in a two-story building to serve rail passengers during train stopovers in Lathrop. He also laid out the town.
In the 1870s Lathrop was the biggest settlement in the South County. There were 1,500 residents, three hotels, seven saloons, five general stores, three hotels, a bakery, two blacksmith shops and several draying and freight companies. It also had a large schoolhouse where the Methodists, German Baptists and Dunkards met.
During the 1870s a 2,100-pound California Grizzly Bear dubbed “Sally” was kept in a cage at the Lathrop depot for the amusement of passengers. The bear was eventually sold to a butcher in San Francisco when it became uncontrollable for 50 cents a pound.
Stanford, in a bid to grow a population base to boost business in his various commercial enterprises in Lathrop, lowered both passenger and freight rates for those that opted to settle in Lathrop.
That ended up being the undoing of early Lathrop.
Soon other businesses popped up competing with Stanford’s include a number of hotels that undercut Stanford’s prices to get the lucrative dinner trade from passengers on train layovers. They even provided free transportation from the station with what newspaper accounts referred to as “dandy buckboard wagons.”
That continued for a period of time until Stanford ordered a long line of box cars to be placed on the siding to prevent the hotel owners from having easy access to the station. The box cars were eventually replaced by a long board fence.
Then in 1886 Stanford ordered the terminal and roundhouse moved to Tracy. Lore has it that he also ordered the roundhouse and other structures in Lathrop except for the railroad hotel and station burned to the ground. The fire coincided with the completion of the transfer of railroad operations to Tracy.
The near death of Lathrop that the move created gave life to Tracy.
Judge David Terry was shot to death on Aug. 13, 1889 in the Lathrop railroad hotel where rail passenger were having breakfast. He had happened to cross the path of Justice Stephen Field and his bodyguard David Nagle.
Terry back in 1859 as a sitting judge on the State Supreme Court met in a duel in San Mateo County with David Broderick who was one of the two California U.S. Senators and had slammed the high bench judges for all being bad jurists.
Terry shot Broderick but no one thought the wound was serious until he died the next day.
Terry was charged with murder but ultimately the case was dismissed.
Terry in 1884 became an associate lawyer in a major divorce case of the day involving a multimillionaire former senator form Nevada who was being sued by his wife for divorce in San Francisco.
Field was one of the judges who had numerous run-ins with Terry during the case.
In a follow-up case after Sharon’s death that made it to the state supreme court here Field had become the presiding judge, things became so acrimonious a brawl broke out in the courtroom and Terry along with his wife were arrested.
Terry got six months in prison and his wife three months. Terry threaten to kill Field when he was released.
There are various accounts of what transpired on Aug. 13, 1889 in Lathrop. Most agree on two things: Terry advanced on Field and Nagle shot Terry.
Lathrop, after the bulk of the railroad operations moved to Tracy, became a quiet village of sorts with churches, Sunday picnics and baseball games with surrounding towns.