- Journal of SD History
The Plank Road
The plank road was a major step forward in solving the transportation problems of the Imperial Valley. This article concerns the life of the plank road, its location and inception in the minds of far-sighted men, its life span (1912 to 1927), the problems of maintenance and travel during the early and late years of existence, and the problems encountered in building the road across the little Sahara Desert.
Early Settlers in the Valley
As early as 1890, settlers began to enter what is now known as the Imperial Valley of California. Before this date many settlers and travelers passed through the valley on their way to San Diego or Los Angeles from Ft. Yuma on the Colorado River. These people viewed the Imperial Valley as a barren wasteland subject to instant flooding and plagues of insects in addition to arid land and scorching heat throughout the year.
In spite of the severe conditions, a few hardy settlers started the town of Imperial. By 1900 many more settlers entered the valley and began to farm the land. By 1907 the Imperial Valley, then a part of San Diego County, became a county by itself. At this time the new county boasted five new towns: Calexico, located on the Mexican border; Holtville, to the northeast about twenty-five miles; Brawley, due north another eighteen miles; and Imperial and El Centro in the center of the valley. With the rapid rise in population, roads were needed to bring supplies to the increasing number of farmers moving into the valley and to allow the shipment of their products to eastern markets.
About thirty-five miles east of the cluster of towns lay a strip of shifting, blowing sand eight miles wide and eighty to one hundred miles long. To traverse this natural barrier, a traveler going to Yuma had to travel north to Brawley, then east through Mammoth Wash to the Southern Pacific railroad, then south to Ft. Yuma. Around 1900, this trip took two to three days and covered some of the roughest, driest country in southern California. Many settlers who wanted to travel east would go to Los Angeles and then head east over one of the better routes. A new wagon road directly across the sand dunes (known as the little Sahara Desert) would save fifty-one miles and two days of travel.1
The Beginning of a Road West
On January 16, 1912, Edwin Boyd, county supervisor of Holtville from 1911 to 1914 and father of the plank road, called a meeting of interested parties and the supervisors from Holtville, El Centro, Brawley, Imperial, and Calexico. The purpose of this meeting was to decide the method and route to be used in building a direct road over the sand hills to Yuma. This meeting took place on Friday evening at the Hotel Oregon in El Centro. Several plans were submitted and the suggested routes were to be checked and decided upon at a later date.2
One of the first plans called for laying a thick mat of arrow weed over the sand for autos and wagons to roll over. This plan worked until the weeds dried out and became brittle. They then broke up and caused more of a problem than in the beginning.3
Another plan was proposed by Edward Johnson, a mechanic in Holtville. He built a modified Model T Ford in which he raised the drive shaft up under the seat and put enlarged tires on the rear wheels. Then, he headed into the dunes, but stalled going up the first sand hills, and the six men and horses that were with him had to pull him out.4
During this time, Edwin Boyd of Holtville submitted his idea of the plank road. This idea, upon being tested, proved to be the answer to the problem. Boyd then enlisted the help of some of the prominent citizens to put his idea over to the supervisors. Four of these men were Otis B. Tout, owner of the local newspaper; John Ishilman, a prominent businessman; Phillip Swing, a young lawyer and later congressman who introduced the bill in Congress to build Hoover Dam; and Donald Bitler, district attorney of El Centro.5 Boyd called another meeting to be held on April 24, 1912, for the purpose of deciding on the route to be used.6
The contingent from Brawley wanted a route through Mammoth Wash to Yuma while the group from Calexico wanted a southern route around the sand hills. Before this argument was settled, Col. Edward Fletcher, the pioneer road builder from San Diego, stated that San Diego would furnish the money if Imperial County would furnish labor and use the most direct route.7
Construction on the first plank road began September 19, 1912, and was completed some three weeks later.8 Because of the great need for a passable road to the east, this first road was built entirely with free labor donated by the farmers of the valley. It was maintained by the travelers themselves. Each person, as he passed a damaged area, would stop and fix it so that it would be passable upon his return.9
The first road consisted of three by eight inch planks about seven feet long. They resembled railroad ties in appearance. The planks were placed on the sand about one foot apart and two strips of track were nailed to each side to hold them in place. These strips consisted of three two by eight inch planks nailed side by side and end to end to form a track twenty-four inches wide.10 The finished road resembled a railroad track in appearance, but for autos only.
This first road was one lane wide and covered a distance of only six miles over the worst of the sand hills. Turnouts posted every mile afforded cars a chance to pass without running off the road into the sand. If two autos met in the center, one had to back up to a turnout and let the other pass.
Thus, with money from San Diego and the free help of eager farmers, Edwin Boyd saw his dream of a road over the sand hills come true. The first road lasted until 1915, at which time it needed repairs and additional turnouts to accommodate the steadily growing traffic load.11
In 1915 the first bridge across the Colorado River at Yuma provided easier access to the Imperial Valley in southern California.12 With increased traffic, the need for a new, improved road became imminent. Col. Fletcher, the first road commissioner of San Diego County, went before the newly formed State Highway Commission in San Francisco to plead for the practicability and desirability of building a new and improved route directly through the little Sahara Desert.13
J. B. Lippenscott, a nationally famous engineer, protested the route telling the commission, "It was the most asinine thing he had ever heard of and was not practical."14 Lippenscott testified in behalf of the Los Angeles to Phoenix route through Blythe, California. Fletcher then asked the highway commission to delay any decision until he could prove the feasibility of a route through the sand hills. He went directly from the commission meeting to El Centro and began fund raising activities to get the support, financial and otherwise, of Imperial County to support his demonstration. The county supervisors were lukewarm toward rebuilding; the old plank road had proved, at its best, poor for traveling.
Fletcher and Boyd, the only interested supervisor, then made an agreement whereby Fletcher was to provide the funds and Boyd was to provide the labor. Fletcher then raised $17,000 in San Diego, $3,000 in Yuma, and enough funds from other sources to buy thirty-seven carloads of two foot wide planks eight feet long. The whole project cost a total of $25,000.15
The lumber was shipped to San Pedro harbor from northern California, then transported by rail to Ogilby, located about eight miles northeast of Yuma on the Southern Pacific railroad, and then transported from Ogilby to New County Wells, a distance of three miles by horse and wagon. The first check to pay for the planks, issued on March 10, 1915, to the McCormack Lumber Co. for $2,402.05, was signed by the El Centro-Yuma Road Trust, Col. Edward Fletcher, Trustee.16
Instead of resembling a railroad, the planks for the new road were nailed to runners, laid side by side and then bolted together into thirty foot sections by a three times quarter inch steel band. The thirty foot sections were used to make maintenance easier.
The road, lengthened from six miles to eight miles, kept construction crews of ten to fifty volunteers busy for almost six months. Turnouts were constructed every one half mile, making passing much easier.17 Maintenance, a never-to-be-forgotten problem, kept crews busy the year around. As the road followed no exact survey, two men and four horses would simply move the thirty foot sections elsewhere when sand covered or undermined the road. The new road, however, was successful and the state highway commission and the U.S. Bureau of Census adopted the route officially. Thus in 1917, Highway 80 began in Imperial and San Diego Counties.18
After official adoption of the route by state and federal agencies, maintenance of the road was taken over by the State Highway Commission. This meant that the travelers themselves would no longer be responsible for the condition of the road. Shortly after the takeover, state maintenance crews arrived and oiled the road. As sand drifted over the oil it formed an asphalt topping of a sort. This process, repeated often, formed a covering several inches thick and improved the overall structure of the road.
With the opening of the new bridge across the Colorado River, improved automobiles, and an improved road, traffic began to increase about 1919-20. And, with this increase came many delays, breakdowns, and the gradual deterioration of the road.19
In 1927 the state constructed a surveyed, two lane asphalt road from Holtville to Yuma. The completion of this new stretch of highway a year later marked the end of an era of early transportation in Imperial County. Instead of shovels, snowplows were used to clear the sand from the highway.20
Signs and Regulations
Signs and regulations were posted at Grey's Wells, the western beginning of the plank road, and at New County Wells, the eastern terminus of the plank road. These signs stated:
Caution. This is a one way road with passing sidings. If another car is between you and the next passing sign, pull out and wait. Save delay and danger. Use caution.
Turnouts were marked by a tall post with a tire mounted on the top which made them easily visible from a distance.
Other signs read:
Caution. Traffic limitation while on plank road, Maximum speed 10 miles per hour by order of the California Highway Commission.
Travel on the Plank Road
Travel on the plank road was dangerous even on the best of days. Drifting sand, high winds, and flash floods characteristic of the area were but a few of the problems encountered by travelers. Lack of water and food along the way made the trip much more dangerous. Each driver had to be constantly on the alert for sand dunes on the road, high wind pockets, oncoming cars, places where the road had been undermined by wind erosion, and the hazard of slipping off the planks into the sand, to be stuck until a fellow traveler arrived.
From 1915 to 1919, travel to and from Yuma could be accomplished in three or four hours, but due to increasingly heavy traffic from 1919 to 1927, the trip lengthened considerably.21 Many fights broke out over who had the right of way which caused traffic jams of eight to ten cars that could not move until the antagonists settled their argument. Quite often it took many hours to back up the jammed cars to a turnout so the other cars could pass. These fights occurred more frequently the farther one traveled down the road. During this period, trips took as long as two days as traffic jams, fights, and weather caused many delays. Many travelers camped in the middle of the dunes where today a state campground has been preserved to accommodate weary travelers as in the past.22
Standard equipment for a trip to Yuma in 1920 to 1927 consisted of extra boards, two auto jacks, gunny sacks, a shovel, food and water for at least two days, and lastly—to be totally prepared—a set of boxing gloves. The women of the time described the trip as dusty, dirty, and tiring. And, to say the least, hot. Women only made the trip out of dire necessity.23
On Sunday, April 29, 1919, this warning appeared on the front page of the Imperial Valley Post Press:
Warning. Avoid the plank road. A public warning was issued yesterday by the El Centro branch of the auto club of southern California that travel to Yuma via the plank road is dangerous. Several cars which recently attempted the trip were badly damaged and owners were put to heavy expense to get through. Cars are injured in the drive gears, engines are sacked and shattered, and in many cases the machines have to be pulled many miles by teams. Parties attempting to travel suffer from thirst and hunger and are sometimes in danger of death as there is little chance of succor arriving unless a call for aid reaches Holtville or Yuma.24
Needless to say, most parties traveled in groups for mutual aid and safety of passage.
The old plank road, truly a colorful part of the history of Imperial Valley, is not lost to travelers today. Motorists still stop at Grey's Wells, today a roadside picnic area where four-lane Highway 80 starts into the sand hills, to climb to the top of the nearest sand dune on the right and gaze at the remains of the old plank road still resisting the elements of the desert.
It is a wonder that without surveys and machines our forefathers could build such a road over the very best place available; so good in fact, that present day Highway 80 follows the same route exactly.
Harry Chandler, owner of the Los Angeles Times, said of the plank road in a letter to Col. Fletcher: "If you were of the type of man who knew when he was licked, that sand hill road would have been down and out years ago. It shows that everlasting industry and never-say-die spirit can get a road built in the face of every conceivable obstacle, and a road that never should have been built anyhow."25
Today, while traveling along a beautiful four-lane highway, one can see dune buggies and groups of happy families sunbathing and picnicking. In past years these same sand hills were a source of consternation and death, a formidable barrier to travel that had to be reconquered by men who had the perseverance to see a tough job through to the end.
1. Elizabeth Harris, Historian, The Valley Imperial. First Annual Historical Volume. Imperial Valley Pioneers, January, 1956, pp. 9-20.
2. Imperial Valley Press, January 6, 1912.
3. Interview, Rollie Clark, 572 Holt, El Centro, California. April, 1968; and Herbert Hughes, 746 Palm, Holtville, California. April, 1968.
5. Interview. Agnes Northrup, Pioneer Museum, Imperial Valley Fairgrounds, Imperial, California. April, 1968.
6. Imperial Valley Press. April 24, 1912.
7. Ed Fletcher, Memoirs of Ed Fletcher, Pioneer Printers. 1952, p. 299.
8. Imperial Valley Press. September 26, 1912. Interviews: Rollie Clark, Herbert Hughes, and James A. Forrester, Route No. 2, Box 320, El Centro, Calif., April, 1968. Each person gave a different date for beginning construction. All agreed on three week completion. Therefore, the approximate starting date was September 19, 1912.
9. Interview. Rollie Clark and Harvey Hastain, 2404 Loring, Pacific Beach, California. April, 1968.
10. Harris, op. cit., p. 30. Also measured actual size of planks at fairgrounds.
11. Ibid., p. 30.
12. Department of Interior and Department of State of California, United States Government Printing Office. 1920, p. 34.
13. Fletcher, op. cit., p. 298.
14. Ibid., p. 298.
15. Ibid., p. 300.
16. Ibid., p. 301.
17. Interviews with Rollie Clark and Herbert Hughes.
18. Fletcher, op. cit.
19. Interviews with Rollie Clark, James A. Forrester, Herbert Hughes, and Agnes Northrup. This is a general consensus of opinion among the people interviewed that traffic increased considerably during this time.
20. Ripley's Believe It or Not as quoted by Rollie Clark. Appeared in Imperial Valley Press in 1930.
21. See footnote No. 19.
22. Interview with Rollie Clark.
23. Opinion of Mrs. Rollie Clark, and Mrs. Harvey Hastain.
24. Imperial Valley Press. April 29, 1919.
25. Fletcher, op. cit., p. 303.
James B. Bates recently received his B.S. degree from San Diego State College after attending night classes for nine years. His article on the old plank road was one. of the winning papers read at the San Diego History Center's first annual Institute of History in 1968.