Monday, December 16, 2013

Old Plank Road is nearly 100 years old

Plank Road was built in the early 20th century to help cars get across the Imperial Sand Dunes. (KRISTA DALY PHOTO)

Imperial Valley Press

BUTTERCUP DUNES — Fifteen hundred feet is all that is left of what was once seven miles of decaying wooden planks known as the Plank Road.

In anticipation of the 100-year anniversary in 2015, tourists from all over the world travel to see the stretch of wooden planks that is part of the nation’s automotive history, said U.S. Bureau of Land Management Park Ranger Carey Goldstein.

As cities in the Imperial Valley began to develop, motorists needed an efficient way to get their Model T’s through the sandy desert, he said.

“As motorists had a lot of difficulty getting between Holtville and Yuma,” Goldstein said during a presentation in front of the Plank Road.

Before the construction of the Plank Road, Goldstein said motorists had to travel south into Mexico or take the northern route through Brawley.

However, Edwin Boyd, county supervisor for the Holtville area at the time, proposed the construction of a road made of wooden planks across the sand dunes.

Ed Fletcher, a pioneer road builder from San Diego, funded the construction of the road so long as Boyd provided the labor, Goldstein said.

“A lot of the workers were from Calexico and El Centro,” he said.

The first Plank Road was built in 1915 as a way for early automobiles to traverse the seamless ocean of sand.

“It was difficult to construct,” Goldstein said. “One of the things they had to do was spray oil on the sand to prevent it from drifting. It kept it nice and compact.”

The single-lane road was built with nothing more than wooden boards, which ran parallel and were a car-width apart.

It was built this way for easy mobility. Drivers could move the planks and dust off the little sand dunes that would cover the road, Goldstein said.

When the road first opened, horse- or mule-drawn wagons along with automobiles could be seen making their way along the wooden road.

The first road didn’t last very long.

With increased traffic, the sun, wind and rain taking its toll on the road, it quickly began to deteriorate.

Second Plank Road

A year later in 1916, it was Fletcher who suggested the newer and better constructed Plank Road, according to the BLM’s website.

Construction of the second road was completed in 1917.

This time 12-foot planks were laid side by side, somewhat the same as the first road. However, it differed in the sense that turnouts were built every mile to make passing easier for the one-lane road, according to a James B. Bates article in “The Journal of San Diego History.”

Binding cross-ties with strips of iron were used on the new plank road.

The road was used for about 10 years, said Goldstein.

The road depicted by the press

“The road got some positive and negative press,” Goldstein said.

The El Centro Progress told motorists to avoid Plank Road.

“Cars are injured in the drive, engines are racked and shattered and in many cases the machines have to be pulled many miles by teams,” according to the El Centro Progress.

“But it was kind of a false claim,” said Goldstein, “nobody was dying.”

Goldstein went on to say that one day later after the article ran, a maintenance supervisor claimed he saw 36 cars come through the road along with two teams of animals.

A segment of the road today

Lynn Housouer, chief executive officer of Pioneers’ Museum, said a historical marker was placed in October 1971 by the state Department of Parks and Recreation in conjunction with the Imperial Valley Pioneers Association.

Housouer said a part of the road is at Pioneers’ Museum.

By 1930 pretty much all of Plank Road was gone, said Goldstein.

A few museums took a piece of the road and the remaining 1,500 feet are barricades in hope of preserving part of our automobile history, he said.

“People used pieces of the road for firewood,” he said. “The rest of it is still buried.”

Goldstein mentioned that although most of the road is covered in sand, people have reported seeing pieces of the old road pop up from time to time.

“It is a part of our history that is yet to be uncovered,” Goldstein said.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Tiny town’s history slipping away

The Stone Hotel in Daggett was damaged in the Landers and Hector Mine earthquakes and remains closed. (SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY MUSEUM/CONTRIBUTED IMAGE)

By Mark Muckenfuss

History can sometimes be a tenuous thing.

In the tiny desert town of Daggett, it seems to be hanging on the edge.

The town’s historical museum is closed. The Stone Hotel, first built in the 1880s and now owned by the San Bernardino County Museum, is closed. And the Alf’s Blacksmith Shop, which for years was on the cusp of becoming a museum, never did open.

Lawrence Alf, the last of three generations of Alfs in the town, died in August, and the blacksmith shop is now in probate, said Beryl Bell, 87, a member of Daggett’s historical society. The society also is closed.

“We’re in hiatus right now,” Bell said.

That hiatus is mainly due to the closing of the organization’s museum, which is mainly due to a robbery in 2004 on Christmas Day. Bell says the thieves took American Indian artifacts, a doll collection and some model trains.

An Associated Press story at the time said farm tools, toys and local rocks samples also were taken.
“They were professionals,” Bell said. “(Sheriff’s deputies) dusted for fingerprints and didn't find one.”

She said she believes most of the material was taken to be sold internationally.

“Anything Native American was probably out of the country within 24 hours,” she said. “They can get any price they want for Native American things in Germany or Japan.”

None of the stolen items has ever been recovered.

Bell works in the offices of the Daggett Community Service District. The locked-up museum is next door, in the same building, what’s left of its collections sitting almost within reach. People looking for the museum sometimes confuse the two and come into the district office. Bell said she tells them she can take care of their water bill, but not their curiosity about local history.

Before Alf’s death in August, he was president of the district. Bell says his family’s blacksmith shop is still full of memorabilia. Despite being named a Point of Historical Interest in 1974, the shop never officially opened to the public. Alf’s mother, Gertrude, would sometimes take private parties through her house and the shop.

“The Alfs had a lot to do with the history of Daggett,” Bell said.

Some accounts have the family blacksmith shop opening in the 1880s. The official historical designation puts the date at 1890.

What is known is that Seymour Alf, who founded the shop, oversaw not only its smith works, but the building of some of the 20-mule-team wagons that hauled borax from local mines. He also butchered and sold beef to the miners in Calico to the north.

Seymour’s son, Walter, saw the value in the old equipment, which fell out of use in the 1920s when automobiles made the shop obsolete. Gertrude told reporters that her husband kept everything.

A news story from 1980 says the shop contained a set of 8-foot-long bellows, the original forge, an anvil, numerous homemade tools, canteens used by the borax teamsters, two hand-powered coffee mils from 1882 and 1885 and the bell from the original Calico School. Horse-drawn wagons and a water cart were parked outside. Bell is certain it’s all still there.

Nearby is the Stone Hotel, where Death Valley Scotty and Wyatt Earp once stayed. It was damaged in the Landers and Hector Mine earthquakes, and the county has never had the funds to repair it. Visitors can only look in the windows.

Bell worries. She said it’s hard to find people interested in preservation among the town’s younger residents, and Daggett’s days as a thriving commercial center serving miners are long over.

“We've got more history than we've got present,” she said.

New Kicks On Historic Route 66

The Road Runner Retreat Restaurant between Amboy and Essex is an example of a landmark “ghost-station” on Route 66.

By Ruth Musser-Lopez
San Bernardino County Sentinel

Ten boarded the 55-seat chartered bus at Rancho Cucamonga, three at San Bernardino, and sixteen at Barstow, all to cross the county on its backbone, the historic American icon, Route 66 (RT66). That evening, last Tuesday, was the opening kick off discussion in a packed meeting room at Juicy’s Café in Needles to learn about and consider what amounts to a planned “new kick” on Route 66. In attendance that night in Needles were additional San Bernardino County residents joined by city of Needles officials and chamber of commerce members.

On Wednesday morning, another eight boarded the bus in Needles along with several trailing cars filled with participants. The entire entourage of 50 then headed back across the Mojave desert to the west, together to view the longest, unaltered segment of intact Route 66 in the country-- “Portions of this road where the vistas have not changed at all since its realignment in 1931” noted Roger Hathaway, professional cultural resource manager/historian, Route 66 expert, now working for the San Bernardino County Department of Public Works and serving as guide on the tour. The pristine, intact section between Ludlow and Mountain Springs Road, all 70 miles of it, was visited along with other accessible portions of the 153-mile long route between Needles and Barstow.

Attending the three day tour was anyone and everyone showing a desire for the care and preservation of the plus 85-year old road, particularly those “interested, crazy people--crazy about RT66, that is” Hathaway explained.
On Wednesday evening at a “meet and greet” in Barstow, the entire group met at the Quality Inn’s Los Domingos Restaurant with City of Barstow officials and Chamber members as well as California Desert District Bureau of Land Management District Manager Teri Rahal to further ruminate on the planned “new kick” on Route 66.

So what’s the kick? The California Route 66 Association, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have teamed up and merged their energy and resources to develop a much needed “Corridor Management Plan” (CMP) for what is likely the most famous American highway, Route 66. Partnering with this effort are other stakeholders such as the county of San Bernardino, the National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program, chambers of commerce, CalTrans, various tourism bureaus, local businesses, museums, grassroots organizations and other Route 66 advocates.

Why a plan?

This is a comprehensive document that identifies the specific byway route, outlines the special intrinsic qualities along the corridor and develops a guide on how to market the byway. Officially established on November 11, 1926, US Route 66 began in Chicago, Illinois and terminated in Santa Monica, California, a distance of 2,448 miles. It was one of the original highways in the US highway system and was likely the most used. When Interstate 40 was completed in the early 70s, Route 66 was bypassed and in California, the transportation department (CalTrans) returned the route right-of-way to the BLM.

Now, though there has been deterioration, the original Route 66 continues to be a paved highway that through much of San Bernardino County remains intact as two lanes divided by a painted line with a few paved pull out rest areas installed in 1957. Through an agreement with the BLM, the county has attempted to keep the 85 plus year old road open to the extent possible, but without adequate funding the road along with its 127 timber trestle bridges has slowly fallen into decline.

What is more, over the years, what is left of the abandoned 1930s, 1940s and 1950s restaurants, gas stations, motor camps and lodges that sprang up when the highway was more active have become historic roadside attractions drawing international attention. The international visitors are usually high-income tourists who spend more and stay longer than the typical passerby, according to Rutgers University’s Route 66 Economic Impact Study. Drawing the crowd, Route 66 is a ghost road of the past that can truly be driven through mid-twentieth century ruins amidst a backdrop of vast high desert vistas that haven’t changed for thousands of years.

This new influx of tourism is a catalyst to ensure that the road is maintained as a viable attraction and doesn’t deteriorate further. Making the plan possible is $103,000 grant for the project acquired at the behest of James Kemp, California state director of the BLM received from the Federal Highway Administration in 2012 and supplemented by an 80/20 matching grant in services from the California Route 66 Association. Credit for preparing the grant application documents goes to Danella George of the BLM and Lynne Miller, treasurer of the Route 66 Association. Miller lead the charge during the 3 day tour along with other association members, including president Glen Duncan along with BLM representative Doran Sanchez and the BLM’s contracted project manager, Jim Klein of Virginia based Lardner/Klein Landscape Architects, which has been selected to prepare the CMP.

All attending the tour became the participants in the first phase of a seven-part program to develop and implement the management plan. The first phase entails scoping and brainstorming as to what would eventually become a plan to maintain and protect the road for this and future generations. The goal of the tour: “Experience the trail itself, determine how to communicate it, how to enhance it and how to make it a draw while still being an enjoyable, safe, and attractive experience” Klein instructed.

But there’s a kicker in all of this. If it were just the road that is to be preserved and protected as a historic linear site, that would be a simple, howbeit, costly matter, as estimated by the San Bernardino County Public Works Department to the tune of about a hundred million dollars’ worth of road, guard rail, bridge repairs and maintenance.

But as it turns out, there seems to be a consensus of opinion that extends beyond our county and even beyond this country into far reaches crossing international borders. That consensus is that the stretch of the highway in San Bernardino County, particularly that between the Colorado River and Barstow has such a mystique about it with its 1930s-1940s vernacular structures spiced up with nostalgic whoop-dee-doos and post war “atomic” style neon signs--sparsely spaced road side attractions set against the vast background of the wide desert expanse that to not include the entire viewshed of that which is visible to the eye from the road would be incomprehensible.

The intent is to go beyond the physical “in-kind” repair, replacement and maintenance of the road. The overarching question posed to participants is “what constitutes the road?”

Klein expounded, “It’s the whole desert experience and what you see along it.” Looking over the desert expanse from the tall perspective of the tour bus, the question begged to be asked, should this now pristine corridor be filled up with solar energy production fields, housing developments or similar or would doing so make driving along Route 66 a different experience? Would it have the same feel, the same character, and the same charm if massive industrial, agricultural, commercial or residential development will be situated here in the future.

Klein’s job is to document, assess and describe the special scenic, historic, recreational, cultural, archaeological and natural qualities associated with the desert segment of Route 66 and to get them recognized as such through legislation and official designation. To do this, Klein’s firm has let subcontracts to a cultural resource management firm Thomason & Associates based out of Nashville, Tennessee and a landscape architect, Dean Apostol, Portland, Oregon whose role on the team is how the landscape or viewshed might change in light of recent energy development proposals and how to manage potential developments to keep the impacts low.

This documentation would not just be used as a management tool but also for documenting the linear corridor site and the various individual sites along it for the National Register of Historic Places and as supporting evidence of a hopefully near future designation as a National Scenic Byway in need of preservation and federal funding to implement the management plan. “Visitors come from around the world as well as the US and California--yet little information exists” Klein observed, “except for a few wayside stops and some Route 66 markers. The project will lay out the steps needed to implement a comprehensive interpretive and marketing strategy that will provide accurate travel information, correct historical, cultural and natural history information, and better access to recreational experiences associated with the corridor, including safety and community pride.” The participants were to consider as the corridor everything that could be seen from the road—potentially the entire landscape beyond. A National Scenic Byway designation “refers not only to the road itself but also to the corridor through which it passes.”

Each equipped with a map of the route, participants were asked to provide their “expert advice and opinions” the map to help identify “important places and landscapes that contribute to a high quality travel experience and to identify any potential issues and concerns.” The types of notations to be made were for “features” any landmarks or places that are felt to be worthy of including as part of a travel itinerary along Route 66 for example, the “must sees,” places as well as destinations that require a side-trip but are worthy of the extra time spent and “views” towards recognizable, distinct and memorable landscapes. Participants were to draw arrows in the direction of the view and to identify “roadway issues or opportunities,” places along the road that present an issue that needs to be addressed in the plan such as an old bridge in need of preservation or place along the road that should be considered for interpretation.

A further category for identification was “landscape issue or opportunity” such as a proposed change in land use or a place that offers opportunities for more in-depth exploration to learn about natural or cultural resources or values or provide recreational opportunity. Examples provided were historic bridges in need of repair, mountain bicycle opportunity areas, and views toward a unique geologic or cultural feature like Amboy Crater or General Patton’s World War II maneuver areas.

Participants were asked to rate the “setting or “context” of the stops along the tour using the following scale 1) not very scenic, 2) barely scenic, 3) somewhat scenic, 4) very scenic and 5) extremely scenic where “scenic” was not defined. The stops included: El Garces Harvey house in downtown Needles and the Casa del Desierto Harvey House in Barstow. Other points of interest included Klinefelter townsite, Goffs Schoolhouse, Amboy, Essex, Danby courthouse, Cadiz, Chambless, Dola Bridge Ludlow ghost town, the original Bagdad Café that once housed the only jukebox between Needles and Daggett, the ruins of the Siberia Service Station, the Cliff House Resort and cliffside swimming pool, and the site of the historic Daggett inspection station made famous in the book Grapes of Wrath.

Of particular interest to the group was some 30 miles of contemporary rock art along the 1930 protective sheet flow berms along the north side of the road in the section between Essex and Amboy, backdropped by the beautiful Castle Dome in the Clipper Mountain Range. This rock art is basically people’s names written with hand sized stones aligned as letters. Sometimes the names were colorfully painted.

How can you get involved and find more information about the National Scenic Byway plan for Route 66? Send an email to with a copy to with “CMP Project” in the subject line. Go to to check out “Route 66” to learn more about the potential benefits that National Scenic Byway designation may have upon both the economy and environment in San Bernardino County.