When roads were made of wood

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.

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

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. 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.

plank2-751DURING 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.”

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.


3 Thoughts to “When roads were made of wood”

  1. 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.

    1. Ken Quick

      When was that? How long was the road or was it more of a wooden bridge?

      1. Tom Gutzke

        The plank road was built in 1915 and replaced with “modern” pavement in 1925. Eight-foot wide by twelve-foot long sections were laid on TOP of the sand. As winds changed the sand dunes, men were able [with difficulty] to pick up a section and move it back to the top of the sand. The total length of the plank road was 6.7 miles. It had several turnouts for passing along its length. Many areas had plank roads. A portion of the path from Milwaukee, WI to Watertown, WI was a plank road – today still called Watertown Plank Road in Waukesha, County, WI.

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