In January 2017, I found a book by Christopher Wray titled The Historic Backcountry. That led me to another of his books titled “Highways to History.”
Yesterday, I decided to embark on an Out & About expedition to find the Wood Plank Road because the pictures in his books were so intriguing.
I found it.
Looks like this:
The Plank Road was a 7-mile long road of wood planks built to get vehicles through the Imperial San Dunes in far southeastern California. It was comprised of sections eight feet long and twelve feet wide that were built off-site and moved into place using a team of horses. Double sections were installed at intervals to permit vehicles to pass. Horse-drawn plows were used to clear the drifting sand from the roadway.
According to some sources, the Plank Road was built from 1912-1914 and in use from 1915 through 1926. Tourist information displays at the site tell a different story:
The story of the Plank Road began with the era of automobile transportation and a spirit of competition between the cities of San Diego and Los Angeles. San Diego was determined to become the hub of the Southern California road network. Civic and business leaders recognized the benefits of establishing roads to link their communities and promote commerce. Businessman and road builder “Colonel” Ed Fletcher was a key promoter for San Diego who sponsored a race from Southern california to Phoenix, Arizona. The Examiner, a Los Angeles newspaper, issued a personal challenger to Fletcher for the race.
The race took place during October 1912. Fletcher completed the race from San Diego to Phoenix in 19½ hours. He beat the Examiner’s reporter who had been given a 24-hour head start and was racing from Los Angeles to Phoenix, by 10 hours! Fletcher managed to have his car pulled across the Imperial San Dunes before there was an established road by a team of horses. He also got his car across the Colorado River in Yuma on a railroad bridge, winning the race.
The approval to build the Plank Road through the Dunes was decided with support from Imperial County Supervisor Ed Boyd, the local newspapers and local communities. Also a factor in the decision was the recent State and Federal Government decision to build a bridge over the Colorado River in Yuma. With great fanfare, the first planks for a 2-track road were installed on February 14, 1915. Traffic and maintenance quickly wore the road. A second plank road, consisting of a continuous 8-foot planks was built in 1916. The second plank road remained in use until 1926 when a 20-foot swide, asphalt-like concrete road, was constructed by the State Highway Commission.
Through the years and with little use the Plank Road began degrading. In the 70s, a major effort took place to revitalize the area and create a monument in recognition of the Plank Road. The Bureau of Land Management, Imperial Valley Pioneer Historical Society, California Off-Road Vehicle Association and Air Force personnel collaborated to assemble a 1,500-foot section of the Plank Road using various portions of it remaining in the dunes. This revitalization stands today to memorialize the determination and vision of those who forged the first automobile highway across the dunes. CORVA’s volunteers and mission were recognized by the Bureau of Land Management naming their efforts the “Preservation Project of the Year.”
Over 400 volunteers worked to recover and preserve the Plank Road.
CORVA volunteers transported unearthed portions of the Plank Road and moved them to be reassembled at the monument site.
Before you go there, though, be sure your car is full of gas, that you have lots of water, and that your phone and/or GPS works, because it’s hotter than hell there.
The Plank Road is California Registered Historical Landmark #845.