October 22, 2009
The second version of the plank road was made of sections 8 feet wide and 12 feet long, and stretched seven miles through Imperial County sand dunes. - San Diego Historical Society
Today's drive on Interstate 8 across the Imperial Valley to Yuma, Ariz., can be a quick beeline through the desert. But in the early 1900s, the route from San Diego was an adventure that featured a risky stretch on a one-lane wooden road through six miles of sand dunes.
The Imperial Sand Dunes run north to south for nearly 50 miles between valley towns and the Colorado River. The stark, spectacular region of towering dunes resembles the Sahara desert and has been featured in films ranging from Rudolph Valentino's “The Sheik” to 1983's “Return of the Jedi.”
But for early auto pioneers, the dunes formed a nearly impenetrable barrier. No roads crossed the sand, forcing travelers to detour north around the hills, adding nearly 50 miles to the route between San Diego and Yuma.
Clearly, a direct route through the sand was desirable.
Imperial County Supervisor Edwin Boyd proposed a roadway of wooden planks laid across the most treacherous miles of soft sand. Boyd partnered with San Diego developer and road enthusiast Ed Fletcher, who raised money for lumber. Supervisors agreed to pay for the labor needed to build the desert's first plank road.
In early 1915, workers completed a crude road with two parallel tracks, each 24 inches wide made from 3-inch-by-8-inch wooden planks. The roadway resembled railroad tracks for cars. Turnouts built every mile were added so cars could pass each other on the one-lane road.
The track needed constant attention. Maintenance crews repaired splintered planks and cleared windblown sand with mule-drawn scrapers. After only a year of use, the road was a wreck.
But Fletcher and Boyd believed they had proved that a road was practicable. Others disagreed. Joseph Lippincott, a well-known civil engineer and consultant to the Auto Club of Southern California, ridiculed the plank road as “the most asinine thing he had ever heard of.”
Ignoring the skeptics, Fletcher partnered once again with the Imperial County supervisors to provide funds for an improved road. Fletcher raised about $25,000, enough to fill 37 rail cars with lumber. The planks were shipped to a rail station at Ogilby, a few miles north of the planned road.
At an Ogilby workshop, workers assembled the road surface in 8-foot-wide, 12-foot-long sections. Weighing 1,500 pounds each, the sections were loaded on mule-drawn wagons and taken to the work site. With crude cranes, workers lowered the sections onto the leveled roadbed and bolted them into position.
The new road stretched seven miles. The California Highway Commission adopted the route as Highway 80 in 1917 and took responsibility for road maintenance.
Travel on the new path was an adventure, particularly when cars met on the one-lane strip. Pullouts were stationed about every quarter mile, but often a driver had to back up to find them — marked by wooden posts decorated with discarded tires “dangling as sentinels.”
Driving along the roadway was a major trial. The posted speed limit was 15 mph — a speed few drivers ever achieved.
“You just bumped across it, and it was bumpy,” a driver from Holtville recalled. “I always said that going across the plank road was as good as having a chiropractic adjustment.”
Driving off the roadway could be disaster. The soft sand swallowed wheels. A traveler from 1926 remembered: “If a car falls off there is no hope of retrieving it. We passed many cars dug into the sand mutely waiting to slowly disintegrate.”
Careful drivers packed emergency supplies: shovels, extra boards, auto jacks, and food and water for two days. One plank road veteran recommended a set of boxing gloves for the occasional fistfight with stressed drivers.
Other drivers remembered the trip as a happy adventure. A popular winter outing was a picnic at Gray's Well at the head of the road, followed by a bouncing drive to Yuma. College students, church groups and families all found the plank road as a party site.
Maintaining the road was a nightmare. Drifting sand often obliterated the route completely. Using scrapers pulled by draft animals, crews cleared the path as best they could, but sections were impassible much of the time.
Road enthusiasts suggested fighting the drifts with “sand sheds” similar to railroad snow sheds of the Sierra. Others recommended an elevated causeway or even a tunnel burrowed beneath the sand hills. The Highway Commission ignored the suggestions, and their crews kept on scraping, “enabling travel to pursue its sandy way.”
As auto travel increased in the 1920s, traffic jams on the plank road becamecommon. At times, schedules were imposed; eastbound traffic would use the road for two hours, followed by westbound cars.
With the heavy use, the condition of the plank road deteriorated rapidly. After rejecting construction of a two-way redwood plank road, the Highway Commission decided to put permanent pavement across the sand. On a raised grade, the engineers laid a 20-foot-wide, asphaltic concrete surface through the sand hills. To tame the unruly dunes, the engineers poured massive quantities of oil on the sand bordering the new roadway to “cake” the sand and prevent wind drift.
The new two-lane highway opened to traffic on Aug. 11, 1926. At the official dedication in October, Imperial Valley officials praised the “black ribbon through the dunes” that defied the “concerted attack of wind and sand.”
Fragments of the old plank road can still be seen at the west end of Gray's Well Road, 47 miles east of El Centro, along Interstate 8. A monument and interpretive exhibit at the site commemorate the historical landmark.
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