The Can Opener – Durham, North Carolina - Atlas Obscura

The Can Opener

This too-low North Carolina railroad trestle is still a notorious big rig executioner. 


Size matters. Really.

At the corner of Gregson and Peabody streets in Durham, North Carolina skulks what at first glance appears to be an innocent railroad trestle – but this is no ordinary trestle. It is sinister and cunning and will mercilessly scalp any vehicle too high and mighty for its own good. It is infamously known amongst the locals and truckers as The Can Opener.

This architectural dysfunction occurs because it was designed in the 1920s and finally built in 1940, when there were no uniform clearances, and when vehicles weren’t as large. So the bridge stands a mere 11 feet 8 inches above the road, more than 2 feet below current minimum clearance standards, making it dangerously low for modern trucks to pass safely beneath without a cacophonous and melodramatic shave off the top.

Why don’t they just fix it? Raise the bridge? Lower the road? Why is such a clear safety hazard allowed to continue existing? The state-owned North Carolina Railroad Company is responsible for the trackage, and it’s not possible to simply raise a single bridge; a certain length of trackage on either side must also be rebuilt, to prevent a sharp hump that would impede easy operation of trains. As this trackage is not only a major freight and passenger route, but also in the middle of a major city, such a construction project would be very disruptive.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation is responsible for care and maintenance of the road; however, they’re in a bit of a quandary. Nestled beneath the pavement is a 100-year-old sewer main. ‘Nuff said.

The city of Durham has made valiant efforts to warn truckers. Well in advance of the bridge they have installed pretty yellow signs and sensors that trip sparkly flashing lights when too-tall trucks pass by. They have also posted a 25 MPH speed limit… all of which many truckers promptly ignore. They then encounter the last bit of safety equipment, a stout steel beam erected over the road, so that any oversized vehicle that insists on proceeding will crash into that, instead of the bridge itself.

And so it goes that this bridge continues to lie quietly in wait for approaching big rigs and their  “asleep at the wheel” drivers who choose, for whatever reason, to test the validity of the warnings and the laws of physics. Fortunately, to date, there have been no serious human injuries. However, the bridge claims, on average, one vehicular victim each month.

The bane of truck drivers passing through Durham will soon be no more, however. The city of Durham’s transportation department announced that the bridge would be closed for several weeks from late October to early November 2019 to be raised.

Update as of December 2019: The city of Durham raised the clearance of the bridge eight inches in November, but this slight lift still recently trimmed the top of a truck. 

Update as of Jan 2022: While it’s more apt to nibble than chomp these days since being raised 8 inches in 2019, the Can Opener Bridge is still regularly snacking on the vehicles of the unwary. 

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