El Centro Field Office

Plank Road

A short, fenced, 1500 foot stretch of dried, decaying wooden planks that run parallel to the modern Interstate 8 is the largest remaining section of the Plank Road. This wooden road once spanned the Imperial Sand Dunes, providing a means of commerce and transportation to the southern Imperial Valley. Its remnants are a testament to the American ingenuity that produced it.  The plank road was the innovative, if somewhat unusual, solution to the needs of early automobiles crossing the sand dunes.

Before the construction of the plank road cars were forced to go around the dunes, either south through Mexico, or the more popular northern route, through Brawley. The Brawley route presented its own challenges, going directly through Mammoth Wash, which was known for its flash floods that could sweep cars away in a matter of minutes. The Brawley route also took travelers far to the north in the Valley, taking business away from southern Imperial Valley towns and routing travelers towards Los Angeles, much to the annoyance of the rival southern city of San Diego. (Kupel 1986)  With the danger of loss of car and life, as well as the financial loss to the Imperial Valley and San Diego, a new route had to be established. (Kupel 1986)

The First Plank Road 

Scanned photo of Plank Road, 1915. Photo orgin unknown.The first unofficial attempt at a roadway through the dunes had been attempted in the early 20th century by laying brush down on the sand for cars to drive over. While this solution worked quite well, the results were only temporary; the brush soon dried and cracked, leaving cars in a more disastrous situation than before.

Construction began on the first Plank Road in 1915. (Carrico 1989) The idea for a road made of wooden planks was conceived of by Edwin Boyd, the County Supervisor of Holtville. The project, in large part, was undertaken due to the influence of Ed Fletcher, the first Road Commissioner of San Diego County. Fletcher raised the money and made arrangements for lumber to be donated to the project.

The single lane road was built like railroad tracks. Bolted wooden boards ran parallel to each other approximately the width a car apart. The tracks were dragged out by teams of mules, and then laid end to end with only spiked crossbars connecting them. The road was purposely designed with such simplicity so that the planks could easily be detached from one another and moved. This portability was necessary because the sand dunes constantly shift; while a stationary road would quickly be covered by sand, the planks of the road could be pried apart and dragged back on top of the sand.

Unfortunately, due to the amount of use and the harsh conditions of the desert, by late 1915, the plank road was in disarray. The boards had become so mangled that the road was nearly unusable. Yet again, a new solution had to be found. (Kupel 1986)

The Second Plank Road

In 1916, it was Ed Fletcher who proposed a newer and better road through the “Little Sahara.” One engineer called the second attempt at a road through the dunes “the most asinine thing he had ever heard of,” however, Fletcher prevailed. As with the previous road, he would have to provide the financial resources, as well as lumber. (Kupel 1986)

Construction of the second Plank Road, the remnants of which are still visible in the sand dunes today, was completed by 1917. (Carrico 1989) This time, the road was constructed of planks laid side by side in 12 foot, prefabricated sections. The sections were designed along the same lines as the first Plank Road so they could easily be detached from one another and moved as the sands drifted.

Scanned photo of Plank Road, 1916.  As one car travels down the one lane road, another waits at a pull out. Photo orgin unknown.The second Plank Road differed from its predecessor, however, in that it contained some sections that were not wood at all. In the area around Gray’s Well (Buttercup Rest Area I-8), the road entered a section of the dunes where the sands drifted less, so a road of oiled earth was built. Further improvements were made in 1917, when turnouts were put in at one mile intervals to make passing easier on the one lane road. (Kupel 1986)

In order to ensure easier conditions for travelers, a maintenance crew of two men and four horses was always on duty to move the plank sections as the sands drifted over them yet fighting the destruction of the road was a losing battle. Maintenance had to be done at an almost constant rate throughout the year.  There were constant windstorms in the spring and fall covering the road with sand, and in the summer, the high heat dried the planks, causing them to splinter. The Plank Road, while an engineering feat, was not a permanent solution to the problem of getting automobiles across the sand dunes.    

Tales from the Plank Road

The Plank Road was principally a means of facilitating commerce and transportation through the Imperial Valley. However, that does not mean that it wasn’t a source of great adventure for all who traversed it. Here are just a few stories and quotes about the Plank Road:
  • Scanned photo of Plank Road, 1916.  A Model-T waits at a pull-out to allow oncoming traffic to pass by. Photo orgin unknown.On one occasion, a group of 20 cars traveling down the plank road encountered a single car going in the opposite direction. The lone driver, for unknown reasons, would not back up to a turnout. Finally, the men of the larger group decided it would be easier to simply lift the car off the road, while the women of the party drove the cars past. When they were past, the men lifted the other driver’s car back onto the road. (Kupel 1986)
  • Despite the threat of death and danger, or perhaps because of it, families, youth groups, and friends saw the Plank Road as an adventure, and the area around Gray’s Well could look like a picnic ground in the winter months. Travelers recall the sense of adventure as they “bumped along” with one traveler stating that “going across the plank road was as good as having a chiropractic adjustment.”(Kupel 1986)
  • During prohibition, liquor could be found being sold to travelers along the plank road. (Carrico 1989)
Decline of the Plank Road

Scanned photo of Newton Gray's gas station at the western terminus of the road. This sign reads: Caution, this is a one way road. If another car is between you and the next passing sign, pull out and wait. Photo orgin unknown.The constant maintenance and increase in traffic using the plank road led the California Highway Commission to evaluate options to alleviate these problems. A year-long locational study beginning in the winter of 1923 concluded that the current route of the plank road was the best path to construct a more permanent road through the sand dunes. In the spring of 1924, another study was conducted to determine the rate of change of the shifting sands in the dunes.

The next step was to determine the best material type to be used for the proposed road. The commission built two test sections road on the eastern end of the dunes near Ogilby Road. These two sections were both made of redwood planks rather than pine which were originally used. One was ten-feet wide and the other eighteen feet wide. Unfortunately, the test sections presented the same maintenance problems as the current plank road. This proved to be a minor setback. The final results for the experimental study from the spring of 1924 came back favorably and the commission decided to build the new road on the large, more stable dunes. The stability of the larger dunes also allowed the engineers to use asphaltic concrete for the building material, which fixed the maintenance problem.  Construction of the new paved road (Hwy 80) began January 12, 1926 and was completed 10 months later on Nov. 24, 1926. (Carrico 1989) With Hwy 80 now the new road of choice, the plank road slowly was claimed by the shifting sands.

Destruction and Preservation

The years following the creation of Hwy 80 are filled with calls to preserve the plank road because of its significance to the nation's history. As early as 1930, only four years after its abandonment, residents from Today, a fenced off section of the Plank Road in the Imperial Sand Dunes is all that remains. Photo credits: BLMboth Arizona and California made pleas to preserve the plank road from the  vandalism of travelers using the planks for firewood. In 1934, portions of the plank road were removed and sent off to various museums to be preserved.  Beginning in 1936 some of the plank road was destroyed to make way for the All-American Canal which was built along the same path the road previously ran.  In 1962, Interstate 8 was built, destroying more of the remaining plank road. As off-road vehicles became more popular as a recreation activity in the dunes, more of the remaining portions of the plank road were inadvertently damaged. Again seeing the need for preservation, the Bureau of Land Management, in partnership with the Imperial Valley Pioneer Historical Society, the Off-Road Vehicle Association and Air Force personnel relocated and fenced off about 1500 feet of the existing plank road to the Gray’s Well area in the early 1970’s.(BLM 1991)

The Plank Road Today

Plank Road California Historical Landmark #845. This unique plank road, seven miles long, was the only means early motorists had for crossing the treacherous Imperial Sand Dunes. The eight by twelve foot sections were moved with a team of horses whenever the shifting sands covered portions of the road. Double sections were placed at intervals to permit vehicles to pass. Plaque placed by the State Department of Parks and Recreation in cooperation with the Imperial Valley Pioneers Association October 16, 1971. Photo credits: BLM

Today, not much of the plank road remains. The remaining fragments have been designated as an ACEC under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management. The historical significance the plank road has played in early American transportation and western migration history led the State of California to designate it as a California Historical Landmark on 01/21/1971; it was also determined eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. (Dept. of Parks and Recreation 2009)

Remnants of the Plank Road are protected and the fenced section may be viewed up close at the west end of Grays Well Road by exiting Interstate 8 at the Grays Well road exit. A Plank Road Monument and interpretive wayside panels are located there.  See map. 


References:
Bates, James B. “The Plank Road.” Journal of San Diego History 16:2 (Spring 1970): 24-33

Bureau of Land Management. “The Plank Road of Imperial Valley,” 1991 (Brochure: BLM-CA-91-010-810)

Bureau of Land Management. Plank Road Area of Critical Environmental Concern Management Plan. BLM: California Desert District, El Centro Resource Area, 1985

Carrrico, Richard. “The Plank Road of Imperial County.” Final Report of a Historical and Archaeological Study conducted by PHR Associates and Richard Carrico, consulting archaeologist. Prepared for the Bureau of Land Management California Desert District, El Centro Resource Area,1989

Department of Parks and Recreation. California Office of Historic Preservation Listed Resources. Sacramento, California, 2009 Hyperlink to: http://ohp.parks.ca.gov/listed_resources/?view=all

Department of Parks and Recreation. California Historical Landmarks. Sacramento, California, 1979

Kupel, Douglas. Appendix F: Imp 476H- The Old Plank Road. Archeological Investigations in the Picacho Basin: Southwest Powerlink Project—Sand Hills to the Colorado River Segment. Prepared by Wirth Environmental Services, Division of Dames and Moore, San Diego, for San Diego Gas and Electric, 1986

Research completed by Student Conservation Association interns Amy Albanese and Mark Castro.