When roads were made of wood

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By Chuck Woodbury

Early in the twentieth century, when auto travel was becoming the rage, Yuma, Ariz., was at a crossroads but with a big obstacle to the west: sand dunes – vast sand dunes.


The Algodones Dunes stretch more than 40 miles. Throughout history, travel of any nature was severely inhibited by this great barrier. Explorers, wagon freighters and stagecoaches approaching and leaving Yuma Crossing avoided the dunes by traveling north or south.

With the building of Yuma’s Ocean to Ocean highway in 1915, a way had to be found for automobiles to cross the vast expanse of sand. A wooden plank road seemed the answer.

The first such road was constructed in 1915 and was rapidly replaced by a second one in 1916. The San Diego Chamber of Commerce, eager for the business the road could bring, donated 13,100 oak planks.

plnk-751
A stretch of the old plank road years after it was bypassed in 1926. Today, I-8 transports motorists quickly through the area.

The second road was built in eight-foot by twelve-foot sections and reinforced with strap iron along the edges and centers. The speed limit was 10 miles per hour. It wasn’t much of a road – a 6.7 mile one-laner with pullouts for passing.

DURING SANDSTORMS, the road could become impassable, forcing motorists to wait. But sandstorm or not, it was always a rocky ride, earning the road the nickname “Old Shaky.”

plank2-751

In 1925, traffic increased to 30 cars per day – a problem; officials reacted by regulating the traffic: east-bound traffic would leave on even hours, westbound traffic on odd hours. But this wasn’t enough: after 10 years of use, the road was falling apart and traffic jams were frequent and sometimes nasty when the right-of-way was disputed.

On August 11, 1926, the opening of paved, two-lane California State Route 80 put an end to travel on the wooden plank road. Today, motorists speed across on Interstate 8.

A good place to see a piece of plank road is at Yuma Crossing State Park in Yuma, where a lone section of the old road has been preserved, complete with a 1909 Model T right on top.
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Prospector 1950

I personally remember this old wooden road for two reasons. (1) I have seen it many times back in my youth as my family and I traversed the new paved Highway 80 going to and from Arizona and California. (2) Because my dad (he passed away in 1961), told me that during the many times he was traversing it before I was born, and that because it was only a narrow one car wide road that if two cars met head on and that if they were not near, or at, a passing turn-out, one car either had to back up to a passing turn-out so the other could pass, or one car had to get off the road and let the other one pass. He said that in most all cases, if one car opted to get off the road, the person who got to stay on the road to pass always, as a common courtesy stopped and helped the other person of whom had to get off the road get his car back upon the road again, and then they thanked each other, shook hands, and then continued upon their merry way. He also told me of one incident of where he was traversing that wooden road one day during a heavy sandstorm (he said he was driving a 1931 Model A Ford), and met an oncoming car (he told me what year this happened, but I don’t remember). He said the driver of the other car adamantly refused to get off the road come hell or high water. My dad said that to forestall any bad feelings he himself opted as a courteous gesture to be the one to get his car off the road and let the other driver pass. My dad said as soon as the driver of the other car got passed, he also refused to be courteous and help my dad get his car back upon the road again and while laughing his butt off, gave my dad the finger, and drove away. Because of the blowing sand of that heavy sandstorm my dad’s car became mired (stuck), in the sand, and he could not by himself, get it unstuck, and back upon the road again. He said he waited in his car almost overnight for the sandstorm to blow itself out again. He said that when he finally was able to get out of the car, it was almost totally buried in sand due to the high winds and blowing sand. He said he had to walk out and back towards Yuma. He said he was finally picked up by a driver of another car which took him on into Yuma. My dad said he never had the money to go back and retrieve that 1931 Model A Ford. Over the years both since then, and even after all these years, I have often wondered what happen to his 1931 Model A Ford, and if it was ever retrieved by someone else, or if it is still buried out there in the sand somewhere? And that if it was finally retrieved, just who does it belong to now if it is still operational, and did not end up in an automotive (salvage), graveyard somewhere. If it is still operational, I would love to see it, and tell the owner of some of its history.

William C Krebs

I remember my mother talking about coming west to California from Missouri in 1925 or 1926 (she couldn’t remember exactly because she was a very young girl). She said part of the trip was on a wooden road in the desert. I always thought she was making it up. Sorry mom.

Kevin Richey

West Burnside St., in Portland, Oregon, used to be called Plank Rd., in the latter-part of the 1800s.

Dividing Portland between north & south addresses, Burnside St. rises steeply through the hills west of the downtown Portland area. Early farmers out on the Tualatin Plains sent their crops down Plank Rd. to the ocean-going ships in the harbor of Portland.

Laying a wooden road helped overcome the muddy conditions that is caused by both the prevalent clay soil & incessant rains the western half of the Cascades experience November through April.

Road workers re-paving the road used to find sections of the wooden planks left there when the road was first paved.

Calvin Rittenhouse

I worked briefly at taking up a “board” road in South Louisiana, near Cameron. That one was built to cross swamp land.We were picking up 6″ x 6″ timbers, 8 feet long, waterlogged, old, and very heavy. We loaded them onto flatbed trailers. I didn’t last long at that job.