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Until almost a century ago, traveling due east from California’s Imperial Valley to Yuma, Arizona was nearly impossible because of the towering barrier of sand dunes, a swath of shifting sand measuring eight miles across and 80 to 100 miles long. A trip from the valley to Yuma was a three-day event, involving a circuitous north/east/south route, way too long for valley farmers needing a direct connection with eastern markets. A wagon road over the dunes – known as the little Sahara Desert – would shave 51 miles and two days off the journey.
In 1912 supervisors and others from the valley towns of Holtville, El Centro, Brawley, Imperial and Calexico gathered in El Centro to discuss building such a road. One plan was to lay a mat of arrow weed on the sand for wagons and autos to drive along – but this worked only until the weeds dried out. Another plan, also unsuccessful, called for modifying vehicles traveling the route. A third, suggested by Edwin Boyd of Holtville, proved to be the answer.
His proposal to build a plank road was agreed on and the project began later that year, with San Diego providing the financing and Imperial County the labor. It took just three weeks to complete the task, constructing a one-lane wide, six-mile long road of wood planks, a creation resembling a railroad track, over the worst of the dunes. The road was built by the free labor of local farmers and then maintained by travelers themselves.
This road served for three years, until the first bridge over the Colorado River at Yuma increased travel into Imperial Valley and a better road was needed. The new road, lengthened to eight miles, with turn-outs every half mile for passing, was of planks laid side-by-side, nailed to runners and bolted into 30-foot sections – that could be moved by teams of horses if necessary.
The plank road was used till 1928, when the state completed a two-lane asphalt highway – and the old road, dangerous on its best days due to shifting sand, high winds and flash floods, was abandoned. But testimony to the skill of early builders, U.S. Highway 80 followed its exact route.
Over the years, the plank road has fallen victim to people seeking firewood or souvenirs. But about 100 feet of it, surrounded by tattered fencing for protection, can still be seen near Grays Well, and a 30-foot length has been reconstructed, said Kenn Colclesure, research director for the Automotive Museum in San Diego’s Balboa Park. To reach the historic site, exit I-8 at Grays Well (exit 156) and take the south frontage road west about a mile.
The Automotive Museum features a plank road exhibit, including an eight-foot stretch of the old road, Model-T Ford, wall-size photos, narratives by folks who drove the road, and a video interview with Carl Johnson, whose father, George Johnson, had helped build it. For information call 619-231-2886 or visit www.sdautomuseum.org.