The Road Once Traveled

Arizona Capitol Times Staff//November 30, 2018

The Road Once Traveled

Arizona Capitol Times Staff//November 30, 2018


For those who think that the most treacherous way of getting from Arizona to California is in a Ford Explorer equipped with Firestone tires, this picture of the Plank Road built in 1915 is a reminder that there might be even more harrowing ways in which to make the trip.

Impetus for building the road came from several sources, including the emergence in the early 1900s of California’s Imperial Valley as a major center of agriculture. Routes were sought to get produce from there to the rest of the country, but the great sand dunes west of Yuma were a major obstacle. In addition, there was interest in building a highway from coast to coast.

Business leaders and politicians in Los Angeles were, of course, in favor of all commerce going through their city and building a road from California to Arizona that stayed north of the dunes, but leaders in San Diego, the Imperial Valley, and Yuma had other ideas.

In 1912, an auto race was held to determine whether the San Diego or Los Angeles route was more practical. With corporate sponsorship in evidence, the San Diego entry was the Tribune-Gazette Pathfinder and sported banners with this name and with the phrase “San Diego to Phoenix or Bust.”

The Los Angeles entry was sponsored by the Los Angeles Examiner, and that driver chose a route via Blythe to Phoenix. It’s not known whether he had “Los Angeles to Phoenix or Bust” emblazoned on his car, but it is known that the effort was a bust.

With a little help from a team of six horses that pulled the Pathfinder out whenever it got stuck in the sand, the San Diego entry reached Phoenix 19 and a half hours after it set out, but the Los Angeles entry broke down and never finished at all.

Construction on the first Plank Road, the one pictured here, was started in February of 1915, and finished by April of that year. The road was about six miles long and stretched over the worst part of the dunes. It didn’t last long, however, and by 1916 work on a second Plank Road was begun. This time the boards were laid a solid eight feet across instead of consisting of the two parallel tracks.

Both Plank Roads featured frequent turnouts to allow cars to pass each other. When two cars traveling in opposite directions met between turnouts, however, one of them would have to back up to the nearest one.

Inevitably, drivers did not always see eye to eye on who should be the one to back up. In one famous incident, a caravan of 20 cars met up with a single car going in the opposite direction, and the lone motorist refused to back up.

The problem was solved when men in the caravan picked the other man’s car up and lifted it off the road. The women in the caravan drove their cars past the sidelined vehicle, and then the men lifted it back onto the road. Other times such creative and peaceful solutions were not found, and the phenomenon that we now call “road rage” ensued.

Over the years, officials tried to mitigate problems through a variety of different plans that designated specific times for eastbound and westbound travel.

Nevertheless, by 1925, increased traffic on the road has led to a proliferation of disputes and incidents of gridlock. According to the Southern California Highway Patrol, “All the jams were caused by pure foolishness on the part of auto drivers who could not use the brains God gave them.” Despite this assessment, the following year new regulations concerning the direction of travel were implemented that were sufficiently complicated as to take a full four paragraphs to describe.

Travel on the Plank Road could be a bit of an adventure for other reasons as well. One newspaper reporter wrote that the road was rough enough to guarantee a headache for a motorist, and added that if one happened to go off the road, it took quite a lot of back-breaking work to get back onto it. And the word was that even at a speed of 20 miles per hour, the chance of getting bounced off the road and into the sand was very good.

Another traveler on the road took a more positive attitude toward the jostling, remembering that she had “always said that going across the Plank Road was as good as having a chiropractic adjustment.”

In addition to the ride being a bit on the bumpy side, another problem was the shifting of the sand dunes that the road traversed. During some sudden storms, sands drifting across the road completely blotted it out.

There is a legend that a traveler on the road once saw a hat lying on the sand. He lifted it up only to discover a man’s head sticking out of the sand beneath it. When he offered to get a shovel to get the man out, the man suggested he go back to town and rent a tractor instead because he was still sitting behind the wheel of his Model T.

Much of the fun came to an end in August of 1926 when a paved road was opened that replaced the Plank Road. It was elevated on a built up sand embankment so it would stay clear of the shifting sands, and it was wide enough to allow two-way traffic.

This Times Past article was originally published on September 7, 2001.                                                                                                                                                                         

Photo courtesy State Library and Archives; research by Gail Merten.
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