Thursday, February 9, 2012

Wooden Plank Road Over Sand Dunes

 As we prepare for creating some nature trails around the Slack Sand Dune in collaboration with the National Capital commission this spring, I thought this article on a California highway across the Yuma County dune might be interesting to our readers. In the spirit of our community effort in this project I found it interesting to read "Travelers themselves maintained the road by stopping and fixing damaged areas." We welcome such cooperative efforts in the development of the pathways around the Slack Sand Dune.

Early transportation options included plank road over sand dunes

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Today the Imperial Sand Dunes west of Yuma attract thousands of people set on having “fun in the sand.” Getting there is a breeze, thanks to the four-lane Interstate 8 freeway.

But a century ago, traveling across the treacherous “Little Sahara” of shifting, blowing sands was a challenge. From 1912 to 1926, the only viable route was a wooden plank road.

Before this road, people wanting to reach the California coast first went north to sidestep the sands, before heading south, a trip that took two to three days.

So it's not surprising that people were anxious for a more direct route. On Jan. 16, 1912, Edwin Boyd, Imperial County supervisor, called a meeting to propose a direct road over the sandhills to Yuma. They settled on Boyd's idea of a plank road.

Construction on the first plank road, which consisted of three-by-eight-inch planks about seven feet long, began Sept. 19, 1912, and was completed about three weeks later.

While the road might seem crude by today's standards, Historic U.S. California Highways ( describes the plank road as “a marvel of modern engineering during its time. It went across the Algodones sand dunes, located in the middle of one of the hottest places on earth — the arid desert of the Imperial Valley. They were a nearly impossible barrier to cross.”

Writer Casey Cooper noted that “even the '49s (some of whom braved the swamps of Panama) gave them a wide berth. Later, there were legends of wagon trains being completely swallowed up within the dunes. The fact a road was successfully built across these dunes is a testament to the ingenuity of the men who built it.”

The road resembled railroad ties, wrote James Bates in the San Diego Historical Society's The Journal of San Diego History.

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 planks nailed side by side and end to end to form a track 24 inches wide, Bates said.

The first road had one lane and covered six miles. It had turnouts every mile to give motorists a chance to pass. Travelers themselves maintained the road by stopping and fixing damaged areas.

With 1915 construction of the Ocean-to-Ocean Bridge at Yuma, the first bridge across the Colorado River, traffic on the plank road increased substantially. Officials called for a new and improved road.

The second road, built in 1915 and extended to eight miles, had planks nailed to runners, laid side by side and bolted together into 30-foot sections by a steel band. Turnouts were constructed every half mile. Signs posted the maximum speed of 10 miles per hour.

It was officially adopted by state and federal agencies, meaning travelers no longer had to maintain it. Maintenance was turned over to crews of two men and four horses.

Bates noted that “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.”

“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.”

In addition, a lack of water and food made the trip even more dangerous.

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, Bates said.

“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,” Bates said.

“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,” Bates said.

He noted that standard equipment for a trip 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,” according to Bates.

As a matter of fact, the hard traveling conditions are what brought Bessie Gutierrez, founder of several restaurants, to Yuma. In 1926, 11-year-old Gutierrez, her mother and sister tried to make their way to California on the plank road but conditions were so bad, they turned back and ended up staying in Yuma. She went on to establish Yuma's legendary restaurants La Casa Gutierrez, Mr. G's and Chile Pepper.

In 1927, a new two-lane asphalt road from Holtville to Yuma was built, marking the end of that era in early transportation. This new paved road eventually became Interstate 8.

A segment of the plank road can still be seen today though, off the Greys Well Road exit on Interstate 8.

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