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How the 1960s changed Tracy

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11th Street traffic jam

Traffic often jammed 11th Street when it was a section of Highway 50 before interstate freeways were constructed around Tracy, beginning in the late 1960s, to form “the Tracy Triangle.”

I was invited to take part in a series of talks this month at the Lolly Hansen Senior Center organized by John Giehl, the retired school psychologist.

John wanted to explore various aspects of the 1960s, a decade he felt provided a number of turning points in American history.

Sam Matthews

Sam Matthews

He asked me to speak on the 1960s in Tracy. This I did Monday morning at the senior center.

In looking back at the events of the ’60s in Tracy, I ran across the locating of Owens-Illinois and Laura Scudder’s factories in Tracy, the establishment of a common administration for the high school and elementary districts (Tracy Public Schools), and the elevation of what had been the Tracy Annex of Sharpe Army Depot to become Defense Depot Tracy, an independent depot of the newly formed Defense Supply Agency. The depot played an important role during the Vietnam War, which claimed the lives of nine Tracy servicemen.

And last, but hardly less well known, we can’t forget the Altamont Rock Festival, which on Dec. 6, 1969, capped off the decade of the ’60s by bringing some 300,000 people to the Altamont Speedway west of town. We’ll no doubt hear a lot more about Altamont this December when the Rolling Stones concert hits its 50th anniversary.

Late on the afternoon of the 1969 Altamont music festival, Sam Matthews followed a reporter's hunch to the Tracy airport — and found a story.

Although less exciting as a historic event than Altamont, construction of the three interstate freeways that formed what has become known as “the Tracy Triangle” proved to be a development starting in the 1960s with greater long-term significance for our town.

Basically, the building of Interstate 580 along the foothills, Interstate 205 around the north side of Tracy, and Interstate 5 along the east side took a heavy load of traffic off 11th Street, which had been a crowded stretch of U.S. Highway 50 before the interstates arrived. This was especially true of I-205.

Neal Andersen, then district engineer of the State Division of Highways (now Caltrans), told Tracyites 50 years ago, in September 1969, how the interstate freeways would impact Tracy.

He said that without the completion of I-580 along the foothills in 1967, traffic flow on 11th Street would be 35,000 cars per day at the time he spoke. I-580 had cut it down to 26,000 vehicles per day.

When I-205 was completed soon after that (it was in November 1970), the number of cars traveling on 11th Street would be cut in half, to 13,000 per day.

He predicted that many of the 19 service stations on 11th Street should relocate to intersections of the freeways, (Some did, many didn’t).

In 1969, most service station operators and other business owners on 11th were concerned about the impact I-205 would have, voicing concern for their futures at a mass meeting a month earlier in the Tracy Inn.

Andersen pointed out that of the 158 businesses on 11th Street, 106 were of non-highway uses. (They included Tracy’s auto dealerships.)

“They will flourish because of the lower traffic level and easier accessibility by local customers,” he predicted.

I don’t recall “flourish” being the right description of what occurred. Like the service stations, some survived, but I don’t recall many businesses relocating from 11th Street to freeway interchanges.

Anderson stressed that the development of 41 miles of interstate freeways around Tracy — costing $38 million for construction and $6 million for right-of-way acquisition — would enhance industrial development because transportation access to and from industries would be improved. In this, he was on target.

No one could imagine development of the warehousing and distribution industry in Tracy, during the past 30 years especially, without the local interstate freeway system.

As for 11th Street, it remains a busy east-west thoroughfare in Tracy. And when I-205 is clogged, the traffic builds up on 11th Street and also on Grant Line Road. Kind of reminds one of “the old days.”

Looking back more than a century, when the Lincoln Highway, the nation’s first coast-to-coast system of roads, was being formed in 1913 and 1914, there was some indecision whether the route through the Tracy area should be on 11th Street or Grant Line Road.

Traffic engineers thought Grant Line should be preferred, since it was a straight-line route between the area near Mossdale on the east and the road leading to the Altamont Pass on the west.

Tracy merchants heard news that Grant Line might get the nod and ponied up $1,000 to fund a lobbying campaign. It worked, and 11th Street through Tracy became the Lincoln Highway as a section of Highway 50.

In 1969, the main east-west traffic route through the Tracy area was getting ready to move out of town — to Interstate 205. But 11th Street survived, and what was originally known as “the County Road” remained an important traffic link in our town.

An amazing sidelight: 11th Street remains a part of the interstate freeway system as Interstate 205 Business.

Sam Matthews, publisher emeritus of the Tracy Press, can be reached at 830-4234 or by email at

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