Sand, Dust and Splinters Didn’t Challenge Imperial Valley’s Earliest Drivers
On a sunny Sunday, I set out to visit the remnants of the Old Plank Road, the first “reliable” connection across the Algodones Dunes near the Colorado River in Imperial County.
It was a breezy, late summer day in the Colorado Desert, with brown clouds of dust on the horizon; sand was being kicked up by the west wind.
Having missed the exit at Gray’s Well, where historical markers and a fence protect a small section of the old road, I ended up across the Arizona border in Yuma.
Following a conga line of loaded tractor-trailers, the dust and sand swirled, limiting visibility and tossing around an otherwise sure-footed Volvo S60R. Glad I left the Miata at home, as I’d surely have had sand in my teeth (and almost everywhere else) if I’d been driving with the top down.
What prompted this visit was my guide for the day, Eric Finley’s The Old U.S. 80 Highway Traveler’s Guide, a breezy little book that documents the old “Broadway of America” from Phoenix to San Diego. My goal was to retrace old 80 from the Plank Road monument to Miller’s Garage — and a possible former Stuckey’s — just east of the Mountain Springs Grade.
I’ve been out here before, but after visiting planks preserved at the San Diego Automotive Museum in Balboa Park, I decided to see how the Gray’s Well stretch was doing. It’s a bit worse for wear on this windy, dusty day, but the old road is still there.
While wood plank roads were fairly common in the 1800s, the location is what makes this one unique.
Because of the shifting sands and the state of road technology in 1912, planks were the only solution at the time for completing a road from San Diego to the east. There’s a full history of the Plank Road at the San Diego History Center.
The short version is that in 1912 — and after considerable debate — San Diegan Ed Fletcher (Fletcher Hills) committed San Diego’s dollars if Imperial Valley would furnish the labor and select the most direct route. That ran through the dunes.
The 1,500-feet of the road preserved at Gray’s Well shows what’s left of the sections that were installed by the state of California in 1916, replacing the original 1912 planks. It was used until the paved U.S. 80, just to the north, was completed in 1926.
The freeway in this area opened in 1961.
Exit I-8 at Gray’s Well, then head west over old U.S. 80 about four miles to the Plank Road monument. When you visit, there will probably be lots of campers and off-roaders enjoying the dunes. It’s a popular vacation spot during the fall, winter and spring. You’ll have to retrace your route back to the Gray’s Well freeway exit, as the next exit, at Gordon’s Well, is within view of the Plank Road monument but not accessible.
Following Finley’s route west, I exited at Gordon’s Well and followed old 80 parallel to modern I-8 for several miles.
If you’re not a real student of old highways, stay on the freeway. This stretch of the old road, named for Imperial Irrigation District official Evan Hewes, hasn’t been repaved in years. To call it washboard is an understatement and, since it runs within a few yards of I-8, you don’t miss anything by sticking to the interstate. So save your suspension and teeth… take the freeway.
Plaque marks remnants of plank road.
Exit at state Route 115 if you took the freeway and head northwest to stay on old 80. This stretch has been paved fairly recently and is a nice, straight drive through date groves and the agricultural area of Imperial Valley.
According to Finley, we’re beginning to run across Lake Cahuilla, an ancient lake that once filled much of the valley.
Next up is Holtville, population 5,612, which will give Midwest natives a flashback. The center of town has a square park, surrounded by shops (now mostly closed). It looks like thousands of farm communities in America’s heartland.
W.E. Holt established the town in 1903 during Imperial County’s first farming boom after canals were completed from the Colorado River. Holt built an interurban railway to El Centro, a power plant, church and newspaper.
Old U.S. 80 ran along Fifth Street. At the park, a replica of an old Auto Club directional sign marks the 28 miles we’ve come from Gray’s Well and the 133 miles we have to go to get back to San Diego.
After a twist around the tracks that remain from the Holton Interurban Railroad, old 80 widens to an “expressway,” a four-lane divided road. It’s that way through the farms and roadside businesses until we hit the tracks of the now-Union Pacific, and San Diego and Arizona, railroads in El Centro.
The county seat and largest city in the valley, El Centro was once a major railroad junction. Just before hitting downtown are two old depots, one used by Southern Pacific (now Union Pacific) on its transcontinental lines, the other by the San Diego and Arizona. Folks heading east or west from the coast would transfer from one line to the other at these adjacent stations.
The railroad, known as the “impossible road,” then traversed the rest of the desert and the Laguna Mountains before dipping into Mexico at Tecate, running through Tijuana and then to San Diego. It opened in 1919 and closed in the 1970s. Promoters are still trying to get it reopened for freight service.
If you’re a train buff, park and take a look at the stations and other buildings around this rail hub. It must have been quite a busy place from the 1920s through World War II, the height of rail passenger service.
Nearby is El Centro’s arcade-covered downtown. There’s a couple of these buildings left in El Cajon and a others in places like Phoenix and Palm Springs, but nothing like El Centro. In the days before air conditioning and shopping malls, downtowns in hot-weather spots had covered sidewalks, which at least provided a little protection from the summer heat.
Old 80’s pretty narrow through here and the main highway was rerouted around the old downtown in the 1940s. The mostly shuttered shopping district goes to Imperial Avenue, where we’ll make a right, then left at Adams, go continue.
Just west of town is the Naval Air Facility El Centro, winter home of the Navy’s precision flying team, the Blue Angels. Every March, the Angels have their first show of the year right here. Many San Diegans, tired of battling 200,000 people at Miramar, make the trip here to see the famous flyers. Check out the base’s web site for more information.
Not much more than an intersection is the town of Seeley, which is the last place to get gas, water and food for awhile. We’re heading to Plaster City, across the Colorado Desert.
You’ve heard of factory towns, well this is a town that’s a factory. Plaster City is the home of the U.S. Gypsum plant, which takes ore mined near Fish Creek (and Split Mountain), where we traveled a few months back) and turns it into plaster of Paris, wallboard and other materials.
Old 80 crosses a number of creek beds in this area over a series of small bridges built in 1949. On a less dusty day than when I visited, there would be a great vista of the eastern edge of the Laguna Mountains. Off-roaders enjoy this area as the Plaster City Off-Highway Vehicle Area. To the north are a couple of bombing and artillery ranges, so if you explore, be careful.
As you drive, take a look to the south. Between today’s Evan Hewes Highway and the old San Diego and Arizona railroad tracks are more remnants of an older highway. The concrete ribbon, now cracked and sandblasted, was the original U.S. 80, built in the 1920s.
It’s probably around 10 feet wide, a great contrast to today’s interstate highways — and even the 1940s version of U.S. 80. It’s within walking distance of the Evan Hewes Highway, so stop and take a look for yourself.
The through road ends at Ocotillo, so you’ll have to continue your journey back to San Diego on I-8. But before entering the freeway, continue on to the south side and the gas station/restaurant.
There, identified as the now-closed Desert Kitchen, was, as far as I know, the most southwestern Stuckey’s. When I was a kid, the pecan-log shops were in their heyday and doing a lot of TV advertising. This was the only one I remember seeing — until, as an adult, I traveled east. Then again, after this story was published in the Union-Tribune back in 2004, I received an e-mail from a woman who said her sister owned the place when it was built, and it was never a Stuckey’s. Sorry, but I’ve never done the research to find out who’s right… my 40-year-old memory fragment or an e-mail from somebody who said they were there.
One last desert landmark is on the north side of the road just west of Ocotillo. Miller’s Garage was a classic “last chance gas” spot until bypassed by the freeway. Now it’s a ghost town.
As we speed down today’s freeways, it’s sometimes fun to glance in the rear view mirror at just how far our road system has come in less than a century. Just imagine if today’s SUV and trucks had to use a Plank Road.
Route and Info
- Easy but bumpy.
- Interstate 8 east to Gray’s Well exit.
- Right to frontage road, approximately four miles to Plank Road historical site.
- Return to Interstate 8 westbound.
- To follow Evan Hewes Highway west, exit at Gordon’s Well. Turn right, then left, to Evan Hewes Highway. This bumpy stretch of road parallels freeway.
- To skip bumpy stretch of old highway, exit I-8 at state Route 115. Turn right, then follow SR-115 (Evan Hewes Highway) to Holtville.
- In Holtville, follow West Fifth Street where it turns at Palm Avenue to continue on SR-115.
- Continue onto county Highway S-80 after SR-115 turns north.
- In El Centro, continue onto Main Street.
- Right at Imperial Avenue.
- Left at Adams Avenue (S-80). Evan Hewes Highway designation returns.
- Left at Imperial Highway in Ocotillo to Interstate 8.