The Plank Road

The old plank road was unique solution to the common problem of sand dunes in the south west and the last link to connect San Diego, California with Yuma Arizona. The plank road was a 6.5 miles long road which was built from wooden planks and floated on the shift sands of the Algodones Sand Dunes.

The Plank Road –  SD Automotive Museum
"Colonel" Ed Fletcher (December 31, 1872 – October 15, 1955) California Senator
“Colonel” Ed Fletcher (December 31, 1872 – October 15, 1955) California Senator

The road was built from a challenge and an attempt to help promote San Diego as the major hub of Southern California as opposed to Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Examiner, an LA based newspaper proposed road race a challenge to determine the best between southern California and Phoenix. The winner of this race was “Colonel” Ed Fletcher, who finished the race in 19 hours. Colonel Fletcher won the race by traversing the sand dunes with is automobile being pulled by a team of horses.

Ed Fletcher went on to be a huge backer of the plank road. A road builder by trade the businessman raised money and purchase over 13,000 planks.

On February 14th, 1915 one of the most unique roads began construction with the help of paid and volunteer labor. From February to April the road slowly extended east across the shifting sands of the Algodones dunes. Construction of the original route was complete on April 4th, 1915.

The plank road proved to be very popular. High traffic volume, scouring sand and winds required lots of maintenance to upkeep the road. Replacement twelve foot long plank sections which weighed over 1,500 pounds were prebuilt to facilitate replacement.

In June 1915, the plank road was officially adopted by the California State Highway Commission. In 1916, updates where made to the high maintenance route and turnouts were added every 1000 feet to allow two way traffic.

The California Highway Department replaced portions of the road with pavement, in 1926 when it was determined that the sand dunes only shifted rapidly below a certain point. Maintenance of the plank road ceased despite locals requests in 1926.

The road was slowly lost of history, erosion and campfires. In the 1970’s locals determined to keep a part of the plank road, reconstructed a small portion of it using planks found scattered in the dunes.

Plank Road Map

The Sun, New South Wales Austrailia Newspaper


The solution of the traction problem in a sandy desert is found In a modification of the old-fashioned plank road, according to the “Motor Age.” In places where the cost of macadam would be prohibitive and its practicality doubtful, motor cars are now running at speed and with ease. These remarkable results in desert road-building have been secured by W. A. Horrell, of Phoenix, Arizona, on behalf, .of the Santa Fe-Blythe Motor Transit. Co., operating over the great Mojave desert, just across the western Arizona border in California, We read:

“The distance from Blythe Junction, on the Santa Fe Railroad, to the town of Blythe itself is 40 miles. The 40 miles lie across the Mojave desert, where the sands in many places are shifted constantly by the winds. Horrell knew that he would have to overcome those dry sands, and he set- about it in a new, original way entirely his own.

The three most difficult mile’s of the entire route: lie across a sand- wash, just out of Blythe. These three miles have . been, bridged with the only desert plank road in the world.

A base of railroad, ties first was laid over the sand. Toward each end of the ties two planks, each 3 Inches-thick, 12 inches wide, and anywhere from 10 to 24 feet long, were laid end on end, with the Joints broken to overcome roughness as much as possible. This made 24 Inches of trackage on each side, with a 60-lnch tread between.

When the boards .were laid sand was shovelled In between the ties. , The boards then , were oiled to prevent wear. Regular truck service has been given over that road for several months, and the boards have not shown a sign of wear, with the exception of a few defective ones.

The plank road cost £300 a mile, and no-one can say how long It will last. Horrell Bays that the cost of similar road in
other localities would not be nearly so great.

“Nearer ‘the Colorado, Horrell laid a mile and a half of permanent road with a base of arrow-weeds i cut from the river bottom. It cost only £30 a mile. Arrow weeds were laid down on the sand and then a heavy thickness of straw was put on. Sand and gravel were then thrown on the straw. Cheap Mexican labor was ‘used.

Two Saurer trucks are now hauling freight from the junction to the town, and one Mack handles passengers. The Mack makes the trip in two hours and each Saurer a round trip a day. Formerly the journey, one way, required five hours by motor car, as it was very difficult for machines to make their way through the shifting sands. It often took a week for a team of mules to make the round trip.

Under a new California law this company has been recognized as a common carrier. This is the first time that motor trucks have ever been listed as common carriers. Hereafter the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway Co. will publish rates to Blythe as well as Blythe Junction”

The Sun – New South Wales, Australia – Sat 14 Feb 1914


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