Learn about Life in the 1920s

Paved Road replaces Plank Road on Arizona Highway

THROUGH THE HEART of the great American desert, the sand-dune country between Arizona and Southern California which forms a barrier on one of the chief transcontinental highway routes, a paved road has just been completed.

This is characterized by N. M. Harkins, of Los Angeles, writing in Good Roads (Chicago), as "one of the most unusual feats ever accomplished in highway construction work in the United States," making easily accessible to the motor traveler a picturesque and curious section of the desert land. Mr. Harkins writes:

"Aside from representing a spectacular project in road-building, this link of paving closes the last gap in the surfaced road between Yuma, Arizona, and El Centro, California, where it connects with paved highways that lead through the Imperial Valley to other points throughout the State.

"The feat of bridging the sand-hills was attempted and brought to a successful close after months of study and investigation by engineers familiar with the 'Sahara' of America. Stretching over a territory sixty miles long and seven miles wide, the sand-dune country is one of the most treacherous spots in the great Colorado desert. Unlike the remainder of the desert country, which is largely composed of miles of arid land covered with sage-brush, greasewood and mesquite, the dunes are formed of shifting sand that moves about daily with the motion of the wind, and are entirely free from plant life.


"Placing a hard-surfaced, permanent road across this territory was regarded as virtually impossible a few years ago, but in 1916 the agitation to bridge the sand-hills grew to such an extent that a road was built of heavy planks, over which motor-vehicles could travel between the two States. This road, eight feet in width, with turnouts every few hundred feet, was constructed in small sections to make possible its shifting about with the changing contour of the dunes. It was necessary to keep crews of workmen on duty along the entire route, however, to keep the road cleared of drifts of sand that would cover it."

This plank road, we are told, was the first means by which automobiles could safely travel over the dunes, but the majority of those who were forced to travel over the route found it unsatisfactory. After a severe windstorm, it might be several hours before the road was cleared of sand, and the delays occasioned by waiting at "turnout" stations for other machines to pass, made the trip long and wearisome. Within the past three or four years the planks became broken and uneven, and the journey became even more tedious, altho the length of the timbered road had been reduced to only seven miles. To quote again:

"Early studies concerning the replacement of the road over the seven-mile stretch centered about the idea that the highway must be of a movable type to permit raising and shifting with the advance of the encroaching dunes. After long consideration of the cost and other objections to such a road, either of timber or concrete slabs, the initial plan was abandoned for another which called for a pavement located upon a grade above the height of the surrounding dunes, as a permanently located road was believed the only one that would adequately serve present and future traffic into California over this route. A great mass of information was compiled covering wind action, movement of the sands and other facts about this little-known section, preliminary surveys run and stakes several feet in height placed to measure the extent of the movement of the sand during storms.

"Not the least of the worries of the engineers was the complete absence of water. Regardless of the type of pavement adopted, water was a necessity; and the nearest available water supply in sufficient quantities was several miles distant in Imperial Valley. It was first planned to pipe this water to the scene of the road-building operations, but before the final plans were made, it was decided to attempt to find water in Open Valley, a small space in the center of the dunes. Drilling was started, and to the surprize of those who scoffed, a flow of 500 gallons per minute was struck at 153 feet, thus removing the water hazard and bringing the building of a highway one step nearer.

"Construction work was then started which called for the building of a grade ten feet in height, on the top of which the road would be laid. The sand was thoroughly drenched with water and packed, and the side slopes of the grade mixed with oil, forming a heavy cake to prevent erosion and shifting. Upon this compacted grade the pavement, twenty feet in width, was placed in two courses, with a total thickness of six inches. The edges were thickened to nine inches and hand-tamped when placed.

"The seven-mile stretch of road was built at a cost of $340,000 and was constructed in 100 days, altho shifts of workmen often toiled twenty-four hours daily, and a great part of the work was accomplished at night, due to the intense heat in that section."

Source: The Literary Digest for December 18, 1926



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