Steep mountain ascents, Sahara-like sand dunes and constant competition from Los Angeles to secure a national road, challenged the construction of the Old Spanish Trail from Yuma to San Diego. Along this short section of highway, signs of the road promoter’s determination abound. Just the ascent up the arduous Mountain Springs Pass will convince the modern-day driver of San Diego’s will to build a transcontinental road.
After San Diego lost to Los Angeles in 1911 to become the terminus of the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway, the southern city worked overtime to woo traffic to her balmy port. Using subscription monies, San Diego built a plank road across the shifting Algodones Dunes of Imperial County, followed by another privately financed road over the Mountain Springs grade. Col. Ed Fletcher, a masterful good-roads booster and Vice President of the Old Spanish Trail Association, led many of these efforts.
Plank Road, Gray's Well Road
West of Yuma lies the Algodones Dunes — great sand hills, some 200 feet high, constantly shifting and once complicating the development of a transcontinental highway to San Diego. The first attempt to conquer the desert was to construct a moveable plank road following the contours of the sand dunes. Financed privately by Col. Ed Fletcher and the Cabrillo Club of San Diego, the simple technology consisted of placing parallel tracks of three 1-foot wide planks. The California State Highway Commission later improved the road, replacing the flimsy track with 4 x 12 feet planks arranged in 8 x 12 feet intervals. Constructed at a cost of $8,500 a mile, the portable road carried transcontinental traffic over the sand hills until it was replaced with a concrete highway in 1926.
A short section of the plank road survives on BLM land and is commemorated as a California Historical Landmark. To access this unique artifact, exit Instate 8 at Gray’s Well Road and head west on a stretch of old US 80 south of the interstate approximately 3.3 miles. The plank road will be on your right at the bottom of a dune.
California 94 and old US 80
At Manzanita is the proverbial fork in the road, forcing the driver to make a decision what route to take to San Diego. Harry Locke’s 1916 route and early maps show the OST heading west on today’s CA 94, the old Campo Road. This narrow, two-lane highway winds through a scenic landscape dotted with large oaks and craggy boulders, and passing through the tiny ranching communities of Campo, Portrero, Dulzura and Jamul. The other road, old US 80, started its life as the course of the wild 1913 Great Desert Race from Los Angeles to Phoenix. In preparation for the race, Locke took future International Motorsports Hall of Famer Barney Oldfield over the road to show him how to navigate rough desert terrain. Improved in 1920-21, the route became the mainline of the OST in 1929.
Today, the old highway weaves north and south of Interstate 8, offering numerous opportunities to experience the early concrete roadway of US 80. Fine stretches of historic road are located at Live Oak Springs, Boulder Oaks, Pine Valley, and near San Diego, on Wildwood Glen Lane.
Pacific Milestone, San Diego
Col. Fletcher not only promoted the Old Spanish Trail but also vigorously boosted the Borderland, Southern National, Lee, Dixie Overland, and Broadway of America highways. For his tireless efforts, Fletcher was rewarded with a monument marking the Pacific terminus of the Lee and Old Spanish Trail highways. Located in Horton Plaza, under the garish glare of a Planet Hollywood sign, the Pacific Milestone seems painfully out of place today. However, on November 17, 1923, the plaza was the site of several thousand people gathered to honor Fletcher’s ceaseless work to bring a southern national highway to San Diego. President Coolidge began the ceremony, pressing a button in the White House which set off a bell in the plaza amid the cheers of thousands.