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The Algodones Dunes Old Plank Road

The Old Plank Road of the Algodones Dunes of Imperial County is a unique piece of transportation history in southern California.  The original 6.5 mile long two-track plank road would be completed by April 1915 and would fall under the maintenance of the California Highway Commission by the following June. The plank road in the Algodones Dunes would become part of Legislative Route Number 27 as part of 1916 Second State Highway Bond Act.
During 1916 a pine-based eight-foot-wide plank road was placed in the Algodones Dunes as a replacement to the original two-track configuration. The plank road would be improved in 1924 when portions of an eighteen-foot-wide Redwood based segment was placed. The plank road was replaced by a hard surfaced asphalt highway during August 1926. The hard surface highway in the Algodones Dunes would become a segment of US Route 80 during November 1926. The blog cover photo was featured in the September 1934 volume of California Highways & Public Works.  

Part 1; the history of the Algodones Dunes Old Plank Road

The Algodones Dunes is a large dune field located in Imperial County, California.  The Algodones Dunes have a 45 mile long north/south length and a general width of 6 miles east/west.  The formation being the largest dune field in the Sonoran Desert (and Colorado Desert sub-region) has been a traditional hinderance to overland travel between southern California and southern Arizona.  

Most overland travel routes avoided the Algodones Dunes.  The 1873 Bancroft's Map of California displays two highways branching west from Fort Yuma and the Colorado River into California.  The northern route can be following the eastern flank of the Algodones Dunes towards Coachella Valley.  The southern route entered Baja California and reemerged into the United States near New River Station. 

When the 1909 First State Highway was passed during 1910 it did not include a highway across the Algodones Dunes.  The terminus of Legislative Route Number 12 (LRN 12) was the closest State Highway in the area having been plotted between San Diego and El Centro.  

The origin of the Algodones Dunes Plank Road came during a race which hosted by the Los Angeles Examiner during October 1912.  The purpose of the race was to find the most practical automotive routing between southern California and Phoenix.  Promoter Colonel Ed Fletcher elected to originate his trip from San Diego and attempt to cross the Algodones Dunes.  Fletcher's car was pulled across the Algodones Dunes via a team of horses which contributed heavily to his 19.5-hour victory time.  

Following Fletcher's victory, he began a campaign to raise money to build a plank road across the Algodones Dunes.  13,000 wooden planks were subsequently shipped from San Diego to Holtville to be laid at the Algodones Dunes.  The first planks were laid on February 14, 1915 and would consist of two dual 25-inch tracks.  The original 6.5-mile Algodones Plank Road would be completed on April 4, 1915.  

During June 1915, the California State Highway Commission would assume maintenance of the Algodones Dunes Plank Road.  The Algodones Dunes Plank Road would be commissioned as part of LRN 27 following the passage of the 1916 Second State Highway Bond Act.  The original definition of LRN 27 was simply "El Centro to Yuma." 

During 1916 the California Highway Commission would order an improved Algodones Dunes Plank Road.  The new plank road would consist of an 8-foot-wide road track with double wide pullouts placed every 1,000 feet.  LRN 27 is noted to be graded across the Algodones Dunes on the 1918 California Highway Commission Map.  

The 1920 book "California Highways" by the California State Automobile Association featured the primitive state of the San Diego-Yume State Highway east of El Centro (LRN 27).  A photo depicts the warning sign erected by the Automobile Club of Southern California:


Despite the primitive nature of LRN 27 and the Algodones Dunes Plank Road it became attractive for numerous Auto Trail Associations.  The 1920 Clason Map of California displays the Algodones Dunes Plank Road as part of the Old Spanish Trail, Bankhead Highway and Dixie Overland Highway. 

The 1924 Rand McNally Highway Map of California displays the Algodones Dunes Plank Road as part of the Old Spanish Trail, Bankhead Highway, Southern National Highway and Dixie Overland Highway.

The October 1924 California Highways & Public Works featured the planned design for a new iteration of the Algodones Dunes Plank Road.  The new planks would consist of Redwood sourced segments which would be tested in a 2,000-foot segment which would have 18-foot-wide roadway.  Redwood was chosen specifically due to the longevity compared to the existing pine-based planks.   

The June 1926 California Highways & Public Works announced that the Algodones Dunes Plank Road was in the process of being replaced by an oil/asphalt-based road surface.  Numerous oil mixtures were tested at the Algodones Dunes to determine which substance would work best in maintaining a hard surface in the sands.

The July 1926 California Highways & Public Works announced the California Highway Commission contracted with a Phoenix based company to pave LRN 27 through the Algodones Dunes.  Work on the paved highway through the Algodones Dunes would be completed on August 12, 1926.  The new paved highway would become part of US Route 80 upon the commissioning of the US Route System by the American Association of State Highway Officials during November 1926.  

The paved highway through the Algodones Dunes was featured on the cover of the March 1927 California Highways & Public Works due to it being a major project having been completed during 1926.  

The November/December 1928 California Highways & Public Works featured an article comparing the modernized US Route 80 to the Algodones Dunes Plank Road.  The article noted in the two intervening years after being completed the paved highway in the Algodones Dunes had no closures due to drifting sand.  

The June 1930 California Highways & Public Works announced the Algodones Dunes Plank Road would be preserved by the Imperial Irrigation District. 

The September 1934 California Highways & Public Works announced the Ford Motor Company would preserve a 100-foot section of the Algodones Dunes Plank Road as a museum exhibit at Edison Institute in Dearborn, Michigan.  

The November/December 1945 California Highways & Public Works featured an article on the history of the Algodones Dunes Plank Road.

The September 1950 California Highways & Public Works featured a photo of US Route 80 compared to the original dual track Algodones Dunes Plank Road.  

Part 2; a visit to the Algodones Dunes Old Plank Road

The Old Plank Road at the Algodones Dunes can be visited today at a Bureau of Land Management site located off of Greys Well Road.  The historic monument contains numerous informational stations and plaques regarding the history of the Old Plank Road (photos by Josh Schmid).


Matt G. said…

I'm completely fascinated with this plank road and it's original route. Other than a "circa 1924" hand drawn (but apparently to scale) BLM map of the original route which can be found online, I have been perplexed regarding any attempts to retrace this elusive wooden path. If you take a look at the area on from 1962, you will see all sorts of possibilities for just exactly where this road went. Even more confusing is the "road atlas" function on that site, OpenStreetMap, which shows the scattered remnants in the area of the so-named "Ocean-to-Ocean Highway (abandoned)", which doesn't correspond on actual land paths to any known photos I've studied of the exact route of the plank road, for comparison purposes. It sure is a mystery. I've even wondered if the asphaltic concrete road built in 1926 as US 80 was at some point(s) massively re-aligned from Grays Well to the Ogilby Road turnout.

Maybe you can figure it out sometime. That would be really cool.

Take care.

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