We have covered the road going down Mountain Springs, so we thought it would be interesting to include this article about the plank road in Imperial Valley.  It went through the sand dunes.  At that time it was an extension of Highway 94.  I found this article called “The Plank Road” by James B. Bates. It was one of the winning papers read at the San Diego Historical Society’s first annual Institute of History in 1968 (1).


Construction on the first plank road began Sept. 19, 1912, and was completed some three weeks later.  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.

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.  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.

In 1915 the first bridge across the Colorado River at Yuma provided easier access to the Imperial Valley in southern California.  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.

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.’  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 this 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 supervisors, 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 plants eight feet long.  The whole project cost a total of $25,000.

Instead of resembling a railroad, the plants 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.  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.

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.  Many fights broke out over who had the right of way which caused traffic jams of 8 to 10 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 further 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.

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.

The plank road, truly a colorful part of the history of Imperial Valley, is not lost to travelers today.  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.”

Reprinted from the San Diego Historical Society

[Home] [Previous] [Next]