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.