The Plank Road on the Coast to Coast Highway

From the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce Collection: “University of Southern California. Libraries” and “California Historical Society”

Not as obscure as some of the other sites, the plank road through the Algodones Sand Dunes of southeastern California, along with the first bridge across the lower Colorado River, allowed the completion of the Coast to Coast Highway (later US 80).

Prior to the late Nineteenth Century the common way to travel from Yuma to the California coast was via northern Mexico. Between the sand dunes and the lack of water, passage north of the border was virtually impossible. From Yuma, the Southern Pacific tracks (Indio to Yuma opened in 1877) turned north shortly after entering California, and ran on the east side of the dunes, rather than crossing what became the Imperial Valley. Irrigation and the resulting agricultural boom in the valley led to people wanting to traverse it, but by train the route required a loop south from Imperial Junction (later Niland) across the valley into Mexico at Calexico, east below the border approximately 50 miles, then north to Araz Junction to rejoin the SP mainline.

Sand Dune field near Interstate 8

In 1915, completion of the Coast to Coast Bridge crossing the Colorado at Yuma and the one lane Plank Road across the dunes enabled vehicular travel on the US side of the border. Originally just two 25″ parallel “tracks” of wood, about a year later, the planks were fastened together in a full 8′ lane as shown in the photos. When the shifting sand drifted over the wood, sections were moved by horse drawn rigs. Turn outs, approximately a quarter of a mile apart, allowed traffic to pull to the side and allow the driver traveling the other direction to pass, sometimes resulting in arguments over right of way.

Bureau of Land Management photo

By 1926, highway construction engineering had advanced to the point that an asphalted concrete road could be built replacing the Plank Road. To see a short stretch of a replica of the original road and the Historical Marker, take exit 156 off Interstate 8, turn west on Grays Wells Road; the site will be on the left side of the road, off a parking lot.

Path of the Plank Road near I 8

VALLECITO: A STOP ON THE BUTTERFIELD STAGE LINE

Vallecito Stage Station today

In a remote part of eastern San Diego County, turn south off Highway 78 onto The Great Southern Overland Stage Route (S2) to Vallecito County Park and Stage Station.

Starting with the first known visit by the Spanish in 1781, the oasis at Vallecito became an important stop for Spanish and later Mexican travelers to Alta California; between there and the Colorado River loomed the deadly desert. On November 29th and 30th, 1846, General Stephen W. Kearny and the Army of the West camped in the little valley according to the research of the Kearny Trail by Arthur Woodward (curator of history, Los Angeles Museum; The Kearny Trail Through Imperial and San Diego Counties, manuscript 1931). Subsequently an army supply depot was established, but it was abandoned in 1853.

The original building was expanded by James and Sarah Lassator and their family, and became a stop on the San Antonio-San Diego Mail Line.

In 1858, the Butterfield Overland Mail began its famous passenger stage service from St. Louis, through Yuma, and Vallecito became a “home” stage station where passenger meals were served and horses were changed. The Civil War led to the end of the Butterfield service, but the building continued to serve as a station on other stage lines, only to be abandoned after the railroad was completed from Los Angeles to Yuma in 1877.

In 1919, J. Smeaton Chase published an account of his travels on desert trails, including a photo of the crumbling Vallecito stage station, which he described as:

At the lower end of the valley some arrangement of the strata brings moisture to the surface to form a ciénaga, with a few mesquites and much salt grass and sacation. Near by stood the long-deserted stage-station, …of what at first sight I took to be adobe bricks of the usual kind, but found were blocks of natural sod from the ciénaga. It is the only structure of the kind that I know, and the material appears to answer its purpose well, better in fact than adobe….

Chase, California Desert Trails, p. 247
Chase, California Desert Trails, p. 248

In 1934, the station was reconstructed of sod (today it is part of the San Diego park system, with primitive campsites available).

Reconstructed sod building

As a young woman the artist, Marjorie Reed (1915-1996), became a friend of Captain William Banning (1858-1946), son of Phinneas Banning. In his obituary, The Los Angeles Times (Jan. 28, 1946), reported that “his lifelong hobby, [was] the Concord coaches which he drove as a boy on western transport lines owned by his father…” Reed was so inspired by the Banning’s tales that she devoted much of her art to the Butterfield stage line and its stations; below is one of her paintings of Vallecito as it must have looked on a mid-nineteenth century night.

Vallecito Stage Station by Marjorie Reed, from the author’s collection

NEW LIVERPOOL SALT WORKS

In 1893, George Durbrow and investors incorporated the New Liverpool Salt Company at Salton, on the Southern Pacific main line, south of Mecca, CA.

Salt was deposited on approximately 1000 acres of dry sea bed (ancient Lake Cahuilla) by seepage from salt springs in the foothills. Although called a mine, the salt works actually resembled a harvest operation, needing only to cut salt from the field, crush it, bag it, and send it by narrow gauge rail to the nearby railway station at Salton.
The quality, quantity, and uniqueness of its gathering led to it being featured in an 1899 issue of Strand Magazine and a 1901 issue of the National Geographic Magazine.

salt plow published in “A Common Crystal” by John R. Watkins, Strand Magazine 1899

In “The Saline Deposits of California,” California State Mining Bureau, Bulletin No. 24 (1902), Gilbert E. Bailey, described the operation:
“The sight at the salt works is an interesting one, for thousands of tons are piled up like huge snow drifts,…Indians operate cable plows, harvesting over 700 tons of pure salt per day. A portable railroad conveys the salt to the works.

The [crystal] lake is constantly being supplied by numerous springs in the adjacent foothills, which flow into the basin and quickly evaporate, leaving deposits of very pure salt that vary from 10 to 20 inches in thickness.”

In February 1891, the Colorado overflowed its banks, into the Mexican delta, leaving water standing in low areas. The following June, it overflowed again, reaching the standing water; the resulting flood from the commingled waters reached the Salton Basin, creating a lake approximately 30 miles long and 10 miles wide, but only 5 feet deep. Being shallow, it evaporated, leaving the Salt Works intact.

However, in 1905-1907, when the Colorado River overwhelmed the California Development Co. intakes for the Imperial Canal, the diverted water flooded the Salton Basin creating the Salton Sea. First the salt field was submerged, then the salt plant, and then the town of Salton and the rail lines.

salt works
Salt Works at Salton, Summer 1905. USGS photo

WHAT WAS THAT? A WASHBOARD FOR A GIANT?

1940.pdf

A COOLING TOWER FOR CONSTRUCTION OF THE COACHELLA CANAL

In 1938-40, World War II was looming on the horizon, and water for domestic sources of food was a high priority. Part of the Boulder Canyon Project, the Coachella Branch of the All American Canal was being built to bring Colorado River water to the Coachella Valley where the water level in wells was dropping drastically. Due to the extreme summer temperatures in the Imperial and Coachella Valleys, US Bureau of Reclamation specified the “placing season” for concrete to be October through May, using water no hotter than 90̊ F. However, high temperatures in April, May and October shortened the season.

Since construction took place in unsettled, desert lands, water was first pumped from part of the canal that had been built to storage tanks or reservoirs; then it was pumped via a second 4″pipe line, lying on the surface of the ground up to 11 miles, to the construction sites. In April and May of 1939, placing concrete came to a halt.

The ten foot tall evaporative cooling tower, pictured above, was created to re-circulate the water at least twice, through a 220 gallon holding tank. On May 11 & 13, 1940, water in the pipeline reached 133̊ & 130̊. On the 13th, using the cooling tower, the water was lowered to 84̊ while usage was 540 gallons per hour; use of the tower enabled concrete placement throughout the “season.”

Based on report in Reclamation Era magazine, October 1940.

CAHUILLA WALK-IN WATER WELL

walk-in well

 

If you are familiar with the history of the Cahuilla People, or the Coachella Valley, you probably are familiar with the water well shown above. Sources of water in the desert Valley were scarce, especially in its eastern end. A freshwater lake, Ancient Lake Cahuilla, was intermittently formed by flooding from the Colorado River, but when the river resumed its course south to the Sea of Cortez, the lake would slowly evaporate. In order to survive, the Desert Cahuilla were one of the few (if not the only) Native Americans to dig water wells.

This photo is generally credited to Charles C. Pierce, a photographer from Los Angeles. He probably took the photo on a trip to the Valley in October, 1903, which was the subject of Edmund Mitchell’s article, “On Desert Roaming” in The Strand Magazine (January 1905).* In the article, Mitchell does not name Pierce, but says one of the party of four was “a professional landscape photographer from Los Angeles” and all of the photos were credited to Pierce. Mitchell describes the party’s visit to the Martinez and Torres Reservations (Torres-Martinez Reservation) where they found “wells dug as inclined planes.” Pierce’s notes say the well was at Toro, and he was told it was dug about 75 years earlier (circa 1827).

George Wharton James’ The Wonders of the Colorado Desert (2 volumes, 1906) included a drawing (below) by Carl Eytel that is obviously from the same time period as the photograph.

Eytel well
Due to artesian wells being drilled in the eastern Coachella Valley, James describes the well as having a neglected appearance: “Brush and weeds grow freely around it and the water that accumulates has a yellow appearance and is somewhat brackish to the taste, so that even wild animals despise and forsake it.”

When J. Smeaton Chase wrote California Desert Trails (1919), about his travels in the desert, he describes the wells as having become “shapeless pits filled with mesquit and other brush.”

*Per the notes on the Huntington Library’s collection of Pierce photographs in Online Archive of California, “The most outstanding aspect of his business, however, was the vast picture library he amassed over three decades at work. Aside from making his own photographs, Pierce acquired the negatives and prints of other regional photographers such as Emil Ellis, Parker and Knight, Ramsey, Herve Friend, L.M. Clendenon, George P. Thresher, George Wharton James, and F.M. Huddleston. Pierce eradicated the existing signatures from the photographs, stamped his own name on the images, and organized the lot into subject files. The consequence of Pierce’s business practices assured that most, if not all, of the connections between the images and their original creator are now lost. However, the archive which he advertised as the ‘C.C. Pierce Collection of Rare, Historical and Curious Photographs, Illustrating California, the Pacific Coast and the Southwest,’ became an invaluable resource for researchers and boosters alike, all of whom came to Pierce’s shop to locate an image for their purposes.” https://oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/kt7199q9m3/

Fig Tree John, his Wife and Grandchildren

A legendary figure in the Coachella Valley, Fig Tree John, a Cahuilla, was often photographed wearing a top hat. In July 1901, Frances Anthony in “Below Sea-Level,” The Land of Sunshine, described him as “the distinguished owner of an orchard of fig trees.” In “On the Desert,” The Youth’s Instructor, October 1905, Jocie Wallace, described a visit to his fig plantation, thirty of his trees being at least thirty years old and “quite an orchard” of younger trees.  It is generally believed these were Mission fig trees, the first figs planted in the Coachella Valley.

Life was not to remain idyllic for his family, as the 1905-1907 flooding by the Colorado River that created the Salton Sea inundated his home at Fig Tree John Springs, on the west side of the Salton Sea, near the Riverside/Imperial County line. At the height of the flooding his land was under 5 feet of water, forcing him to move a few miles to Agua Dulce (near Oasis). After the water settled in the Sea, it is said he returned to visit his old home almost every day, but never moved back.

Fig Tree John, Wife & Grandchildren,

This photo of his family is floating around the internet and pinned on Pinterest. with the label, “1934” and a Salton Sea Database Project logo in the lower right corner. In fact, Fig Tree John passed away in 1927. I found it printed in Wallace’s article, published October 17, 1905!

Laguna Dam & Swastika Bridge

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Sluiceway of Laguna Dam, 2017                                                                                photo by author

Construction of Laguna Dam, the first dam across the Colorado River, began in July 1905; plagued by contractor and supply problems, plus flooding, it was completed in March 1909. During its planning, core samples had shown the dam site was layer upon layer of silt carried down by the river over the ages, so a conventional dam design could not be used. US Reclamation Service engineers ultimately based the design on a weir dam on the Jumna (Yuamna) River in northern India that was successfully built on silt (USBR, 1902-1923, was the predecessor to the US Bureau of Reclamation).

BOR Pictures 180
Laguna Dam from California side, circa 1910                              US Bureau of Reclamation photo,                                                                                                                                     National Archives

Located north of Yuma, its principal gate (bottom width 116′) was built on the western (California) side of the river to divert water into a canal that carried water down the western side of the River until it was opposite the town of Yuma, where it was directed into a twelve foot siphon that went under the River to carry irrigation to the Yuma Valley in Arizona. Water was also diverted to Fort Yuma Resesrvation and the Bard Valley in California.

view-into-siphon

“Ground hags” working in the siphon during construction                                                                                          US Bureau of Reclamation photo, National Archives

Connected by a weir dam across the river bed that raised the water level 10–13 feet, on the eastern side was a smaller gate (bottom width 42′) and canal to carry water to agriculture in Arizona along the Gila River. Both sluicegates were based on bedrock & paved with concrete.

usbr1

View of the Colorado River at Laguna today; California sluiceway is on the left.  The white stretch of concrete across the river bed is the wier dam; the Arizona gateway is not visible to the left of the photo.  The man-made “river” to the right is the All American Canal.                                                                                                    US Bureau of Reclamation photo, Yuma project.

LagunaDamArizonaSluiceGate

Sluiceway on the Arizona side, April 4, 1909.                                     US Bureau of Reclamation photo

 

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Sluiceway on the Arizona side, today.                                                                                photo by the author

According to the Arizona Sun (2/2/2013), while studying Indian dam construction, the US Reclamation Service also learned about an ancient Hindu Goddess, who had the power to control water and was sometimes represented by a four armed swastika, a symbol that had a history of peace in many cultures going back 9,500-10,000 years; it was not until the 1930s when the Nazis adopted the symbol that it came to stand for evil. Near the eastern gate they built a concrete bridge adorned with swastikas (whirling counter-clockwise) and also some were incised on the sluiceway.

IMG_0199

 

Swastika Bridge on the Arizona side                                                                           photos by the author

 

In 1948, Imperial Dam replaced Laguna as the means to divert water to the Yuma Valley (as well as to the new All American Canal). Since then Laguna has served as a sluice gate and regulator for Imperial Dam releases through the main river channel to Mexico.

Much of the infomration in this segment is based on US Bureau of Reclamation and National Park Service sites, and articles in Engineering News, (February 27, 1908 & June 10, 1909) by Edwind D. Vincent, USBR Resident Engineer, Yuma Project.