A Bridge Too Low

Sam Chittick pens a heartwarming tribute to the Can-Opener, perhaps Durham’s most famous bridge.


Some may call her an example of failed urban planning, but to me, the Can-Opener is a true masterpiece just the way she is.

At first sight, the Can-Opener is a fairly unassuming bridge in the heart of Durham. Running across Gregson Street, the bridge was built in 1940 for the North Carolina Railroad Company. Over time, as the height of American commercial trucks increased, the once tall enough 11 foot 8 bridge soon began to feel a lot smaller. To protect the bridge, a metal beam was installed preventing it from being directly damaged by oncoming traffic. Later, the city installed an advanced warning system that could scan the height of trucks and warn them if they were too tall to squeeze through. However, that hasn’t quite stopped overconfident truckers from trying to slide their big rigs through, often to no avail.

After the frequency of can-openings increased, city planners began looking into whether the bridge could be raised, or the road underneath it lowered, to allow larger trucks unrestricted access. The problem they found was that a series of pipes kept the road from being lowered and at the time the bridge couldn’t be raised without messing with nearby railroad crossings. Unfortunately, the phrase “Time devours all” includes railroad bridges because two weeks ago it was announced that construction companies found a way to raise the bridge by eight inches.

After the news hit the general public, many North Carolina citizens, including myself, flocked to the site to pay our final respects. Construction crews had acted fast, the road was already closed, and you could no longer pass underneath the bridge. Someone had taped a sheet of computer paper with “RIP Can-Opener 1940-2019” to one of the bridge’s unique 11 foot 8 signs. There was a definite atmosphere surrounding the bridge, one of Bull City’s most prized landmarks would be no more in just a few days. Just like Elías García MartínezEcce Homo, a cultural icon that would never be the same.

We also have to think about the economic implications of destroying such a prized symbol of the City of Durham. The website 11foot8.com, which is responsible for much of the bridge’s fame, and associated notoriety, has sold t-shirts, signs, and art pieces made from vehicle wreckage, for years. And that doesn’t even begin to address the amount of tax revenue the city will be missing out on from the sheer amount of comedy dorks, architecture enthusiasts, and social media influencers who’ve just lost a valid reason to visit the sacred site. Local gift shops have also sold various articles of merchandise depicting the bridge. All of this lost to help protect the insurance rates of local rental truck companies.

At the end of the day 12 foot 4, while it may not have the same charming ring to it, is still awfully short, and there won’t be a shortage of trucks helmed by idiots anytime soon; so, keep on can-opening, Can-Opener.