Picture yourself back in 1918 trying to cross the burning desert of Imperial County. You reach the treacherous Imperial Sand Dunes and face the challenge of a seamless ocean of sand. With relief and anxiety you begin to ascend the first dune on the Plank Road. The heat, swirling sand, and jarring ride across the rough planks makes you nauseous, but you are grateful since this new route offers safety and cuts many hours off the adventurous trip across the desert.
The story of the Plank Road began with the era of automobile transportation and the growing rivalry of two Southern California cities, San Diego and Los Angeles. Just as railroad towns owed their financial well-being to rail commerce, so would communities linked by good roads benefit from the automobile. Civic and business leaders quickly perceived the benefits of bringing routes and roads to their communities. Having lost a bid to become a terminus for the transcontinental railroad, San Diego was determined to beat Los Angeles to become the hub of the Southern California road network.
Chief among the promoters for San Diego was businessman and road builder "Colonel" Ed Fletcher. Fletcher sponsored a road race to demonstrate the best route between Southern California and Phoenix, Arizona. A Los Angeles newspaper, the Examiner, issued a personal challenge to Fletcher, and a race was set for October 1912. With a 24-hour head start, an Examiner reporter would travel from Los Angeles to Phoenix, and Fletcher would proceed from San Diego, each attempting to demonstrate the feasibility of his route. Fletcher chose a route through the Imperial Sand Hills, and with a team of six horses to pull his automobile through the sand, Fletcher won the race in 19 1/2 hours!
Two developments contributed to the success of Fletcher's plan. First, Imperial County Supervisor Ed Boyd joined Fletcher in advocating the Sand Hills route as a direct east-to-west course between Yuma, Arizona, and San Diego. Second, the federal government and the States of California and Arizona approved construction of a bridge across the Colorado River at Yuma. In addition, San Diego announced plans to hold an exhibition celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal in 1915, an event designed to lure thousands of visitors, many traveling by automobile. Could a reliable way be found to cross the shifting sand dunes?
With local newspapers supporting the plan, Fletcher raised the money to pay for 13,000 planks plus the freight to ship them from San Diego to Holtville, California. Meantime, Boyd and his constituents persuaded the Imperial County Board of Supervisors to appropriate $8,600 toward construction expenses. L.F. (Newt) Gray, a local man chosen to supervise road building, sank a well at the western edge of the Sand Hills and found water. Gray's Well, as the spot became known, served as the work camp.
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