It's a normal day on Gregson Street in Durham, North Carolina. Cars are driving past the office of Jürgen Henn, an IT professional whose office is near the railway trestle bridge that runs over the two-lane, one-way street. There is the usual sound of motors passing, then stopping at the intersection of South Gregson and West Peabody streets.
Suddenly, the calm is shattered by a loud crash, followed by cursing (from the driver) and laughing (by pedestrians).
Jürgen Henn chuckles. 'I guess it's time to check the cameras,' he thinks.
The Canopener Bridge has claimed another victim.
When is a Railway Bridge Like a Canopener?
Answer: When it's low enough to remove the lids of box trucks.
A 'box truck' is what people in the United States call a removal lorry. These trucks are large, tall, with a cab chassis and a container behind. They're also called cube trucks, cube vans, box vans, or rolling toasters. Many, many are rented daily in the country for hauling freight and personal goods. Box trucks are the Canopener Bridge's prey of choice.
The Canopener Bridge's official name is the Norfolk Southern–Gregson Street Overpass. It's an approximately 100-year-old railway trestle that runs over South Gregson Street. The problem with this bridge is that it is only 11 feet 8 inches (3.5 metres) high. Box trucks can run up to 4 metres and a bit, which means that they don't fit under the bridge. Inattentive drivers who attempt the feat often find themselves stuck, or experience the 'peeling effect' of the bridge as they lose the tops of their boxes. Hence the name 'canopener'.
Why Don't They Fix the Bridge?
'They' in this case probably means the City of Durham or the railway company, the North Carolina Railroad. The problem with raising or moving the bridge is that it's a railway bridge. Changing the height of the bridge would involve raising all the railway crossings in the area, which would be prohibitively expensive. The road can't be lowered because there is a sewer line running 1.2m under Gregson Street. The railway trestle stays where it is.
The city decided that if it couldn't fix the bridge, it would have to fix the drivers. The following measures have been taken:
- A steel crash beam was installed to protect the bridge from over-exuberant trucks. The crash beam has been hit so many times that it has had to be replaced at least once already.
- There are signs on both sides of the approach to the bridge clearly stating the height of the bridge. The signs aren't metric, but there's no indication that most of the crashes are caused by foreign truck drivers.
- The city has installed laser height detectors a block away from the potential crash site. When an overheight truck is detected, a sign over the bridge flashes, 'OVERHEIGHT MUST TURN'. Some drivers notice this flashing sign and turn onto Peabody Street, clearly marked with a friendly 'Truck Route' sign. However, many drivers fail to heed the warning, and crash into the bridge.
- In May 2016, the city made one more try to protect truck drivers from unpleasant experiences. They installed prominent traffic lights at the intersection before the bridge. When an overheight truck is detected, the traffic light automatically turns red. This causes the driver approaching down the one-way street to stop. The driver then has a whole minute to contemplate the large, lit-up sign that says 'OVERHEIGHT MUST TURN'. Again, while some drivers are enlightened by this information and turn onto Peabody Street, others continue forward to the doom of their (usually rented) property.
- Yes, all the rental agencies in the area warn renters about the Gregson Street overpass. Yes, it's noted on GPS. Still, box trucks continue to crash into the bridge at the rate of one per month. No-one has been seriously injured, but a lot of property damage has taken place, not all of it covered by insurance.
Why is the Bridge so Famous?
Jürgen Henn is good with computers. He set up cameras outside his office to record the traffic, starting in 2008. He posts videos of the crashes on Youtube in the hope of warning people. Since then, he has recorded more than 142 crashes at the bridge. (He has also, incidentally, helped catch a hit-and-run car driver.) Another sign of Henn's good citizenship is that he helps clean up the crash area. In response to subscriber demand, he now sells some of the interesting debris on his 11foot8.com website. Henn has been interviewed on television and the internet more than once. The story about the bridge has gone viral on occasion, and internet users from around the world add '11foot8' to their YouTube notifications to catch sight of the latest crash. The what3words locator for the bridge is, appropriately, ideal.catch.boom.
How do fans respond to new Canopener Bridge videos?
The bridge was hungry.
This bridge is the gift that keeps on giving!
We should start a GoFundMe to repaint the beam.
It was a Penske truck! The bridge's favorite food, along with Ryder1, of course.
'Red means stop.' My four-year-old son.
Whether or not US rental truck drivers ultimately prove to be ineducable remains to be seen. It's safe to say, though, that the 11foot8 YouTube channel will continue to provide subscribers with Schadenfreude for a long time to come.
Canopener Update: Work began on 29 October 2019 to raise the level of the Canopener Bridge – by a whole 8 inches (20cm). This work is part of a $500,000 improvement project for the Durham railway bridges. Perhaps the Canopener Bridge will then open fewer box trucks.