BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for October 28, 2009
BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for October 29, 2009

Gregson St. bridge gets 11foot8.com tribute, proves moral failings of local blogger

11foot8_screencap_gregson_st_railroad_bridge We all face crises of character in our lives, those moments at which we stand at the precipice between moral probity and ethical lapse.

Friends, your humble correspondent isn't above reproach on such matters. I found that out all too much this weekend as I traveled south on Gregson Street, towards what I've called the "railroad tracks of doom."

But I can't put all the ethical blame on myself. I was framed, see? Set up for moral failing by the web site 11foot8.com, a Durhamite's compilation of all the many tall truck-meets-low-bridge moments that have happened over the years at the railroad crossing near Brightleaf Square.

You see, I visited the site this past Saturday morning to show the footage to family in town for the weekend. Moments later, we piled in the car to head to Southpoint.

Turning off of Englewood to head south on Gregson, I look in my rear-view mirror as a driver is wont to do. And what should I see but -- o moral crucible! -- a big ol' truck hauling a massive shed on its flatbed. A truck and load that needed both lanes of Gregson to slog its cargo down the street at 5 mph.

I could see the hilarious disaster impending a mile down the road. And I? I succumbed to temptation, the fruit of schoolboy humor.

I pulled over around Knox, set my hazard flashers, and waved to the truck driver as he crawled past me, before I rejoined the travel lane.

For those who aren't familiar with it, 11foot8.com is the web site from J├╝rgen Henn that documents the unhappy run-ins (pun intended) between trucks and the Gregson St. bridge, after whose 140 inch clearance the web site is named.

The video compilations of the bridge collisions -- captured, it seems, by a video camera pointed out someone's Brightleaf Square office window -- have been seen 'round the world thanks to the Internet and its series of YouTubes, such as Henn's compilation, a version of which was featured on the popular web site Autoblog earlier this year.

On a rainy Saturday in Durham, that bridge was a highlight of conversation on a trip with aforementioned out-of-town family visiting Mrs. BCR and me in the Bull City. It came up once when we headed to Parker & Otis for breakfast, then again as we were driving along Main St., talking about the history of the city and its founding around the N.C. Railroad's trans-Carolina line.

When we got home, the tweener among visiting guests wanted to show off some YouTube videos of hilarious cat antics, something that inspired your correspondent to pull up 11foot8.com and its bridge collision videos.

Almost as soon as we finished chortling over others' misfortune (a bad sign, to be sure), we hit the road in my Accord to head down for some retail therapy.

That's when fate, and a large truck, intervened.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Certain members of the party -- OK, just one, whose uxorial identity I've, er, promised to mask -- were horrified at my pull-over and wave-along action on Gregson St.

But from the reaction of the rest of my traveling companions (one of whom pulled out their cell phone to start grabbing video), I could see that my course of action was hitting the high ground of popularity, at least among those not in the demographic set of truck drivers and railroad executives.

So we creeped along at five miles per hour, watching the truck amble down Gregson, swerving its oversized load between lanes to avoid tree limbs and low-hanging utility lines.

At every intersection, my passengers and I mused aloud whether this would be the turnoff, the point at which some Trinity Parker would get their double-wide garden shed-cum-poolhouse delivered to their well-manicured back yard.

And at every intersection, when the truck's path continued down the straight-and-narrow towards the bridge, we let up a yeomanlike cheer, we happy four (joined by groans from a certain disgruntled better-half fifth.)

As we passed the Durham School of the Arts' athletic fields -- now at the head of a long column of cars stretching back blocks behind the tortoise-paced flatbed -- the curve of the road beckoned ahead, and the merely hypothetical seemed tantalizingly, and chillingly, possible: would the truck really not stop before its moment of certain overheight doom?

The fates were kind to this particular truck driver this morning, perhaps. He pulled off into a parking lot just south of Lamond, near Brightleaf Square.

Our car, like all the rest, took advantage of the opportunity to pass, though unlike our fellow autos, we pulled into the Brightleaf Square parking lot just north of Main St. to get a better view. (This, yet again, winning the support of 80% of the automobile when final election results were counted.)

As we looked back up Gregson, we saw the two truck occupants get out of their big old flatbed and walk around the curve to take a look up the street at the path ahead.

Surely they've figured it out, we thought. Surely they know their truck and load have more than eleven feet, eight inches of height to them.

A few minutes later, the truck peeks around the corner in slow motion. We wait with bated breath as it approaches Morgan St. and -- yes, YES! -- continues south, slowly, on Gregson.

It was at this moment when my moral compass started to feel twangs, like a giant magnet was waving over its face, causing my internal needle to wobble.

What if -- what if it didn't turn at Main St.? What if the drivers didn't see their impending doom? Had never seen the YouTube video, for goodness sake?

Among some of my passengers, it became a conversation point. Should we stop the car, run ahead and try to wave off the truck drivers before it was too late?

(The conversation was lost on those passengers who had their cell phones out once more, video cameras ready to roll. Hey, how much does America's Funniest Home Videos pay these days, anyway?)

As the debate raged, and as our car turned out behind the massive truck again, the flatbed heaved towards Main, and for a tantalizing, fitful second looked like it was forward-bound -- before its wheels turned achingly to the left, and the truck ambled down Main to ruin some other thoroughfare's day with its traffic-congesting crawl.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

One disaster avoided.

One set of very amused passengers, for whom the anticipation and laughter was well worth the traffic jam.

One really aggravated spouse.

Just another morning in the life of the Gregson St. railroad bridge, and the lives it touches. In so many small -- and in this blogger's case, maybe small-minded -- ways.

Somewhere in our Bull City, a homeowner is rejoicing in their new backyard shed, perhaps never knowing how close it came to a fateful, hair-raising, roof-raising (and crumbling) encounter with the Gregson St. bridge or its metal guillotine, installed ahead of the bridge to spare the rails from more structural impact.

But my passengers -- they'll know.

Perhaps the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau should add the bridge as a tourist destination in Durham. Certainly for my out-of-town guests, the bridge was a curious choice for a high point of amusement over the fall weekend.

The moral of this morality play? The next time you're driving down Gregson, and you see an overheight truck barreling towards a dark end, ask yourself: What would Kevin do?

Then, do the opposite.


Scott Jennings

Just because this is a good use of my time, I looked up that bridge on Google Maps, and the Street View made me laugh:


Looks like someone knows how to read the signs.


What a hilarious story! Seems like the Gregson St trestle is becoming a bit of a tourist attraction. I've had several out-of-towners take pictures in front of it. I just hope that all this attention will in fact prevent some accidents.

Thanks for sharing this story, BCR!


Looks like it already is one of our attractions:)....sadly, I had that same window view 20 years ago when I first came to work in Durham and had temp offices in Brightleaf.

I frequently witnessed the same thing happen more than once back then. State owns/controls the street, railroad controls the tracks.

I suspect the pavement has been built up over time with re-pavings...and now they stuck either raising the bridge? or tearing up and lowering the street.

Very funny unless you own the trucks...or are the person in charge of keeping the tracks above it aligned...


Ms. BCR an ux? I'm not sure it's wise to refer in such a way to one whose affection one wants... And if you're gonna use big words, go the whole way and conjugate creep correctly...


There are a number of low bridges around the campuses of Harvard and MIT in Cambridge, MA, along roads on the banks of the Charles River. These roads were originally designed to accommodate "pleasure vehicles" but have become ersatz highways over the years. Despite copious signage, every September as the future rocket scientists and policy wonks move in, a Uhaul gets smashed up. Then there was the time a tow truck pulling a city bus slammed into a pedestrian bridge on the same road .... In other words ... not just a Durham problem.


Reyn: The tracks are probably pretty safe. If you pay attention next time you go by the bridge, there is a barrier in front that the trucks hit, not the bridge itself.

Probably for that very reason.


@Chris: the problem with Storrow Drive (along the Charles) was at least partially solved years ago, with a very simple bit of low (literally) technology: at the entrances to the roadway, a metal "Cars Only" warning sign hangs on chains from the bottom of the "Warning -- 11 Foot 8 Inch Underpass" signs. The bottom edge of the sign hangs just an inch or two lower than height of the underpasses. The result: when a too-tall truck attempts to enter the roadway, the top of the semi-trailer (or other cargo) bangs into the hanging sign, giving a very LOUD warning to the driver to STOP and GO BACK. Here's a picture from StreetView, at the Storrow Drive entrance near the Doubletree Guest Suites: http://tinyurl.com/yg2mphh

Why NCDOT and/or the railroad don't hang one of these near the Gregson St underpass is beyond me. Seems like a no-brainer...

Kevin Davis

@Bullicious: Hey, uxorial is the nice one, uxorious the nasty one. Good point on the creep, though. This one "crept" up on me -- probably because I was up at 4:30 this morning dealing with a "work thing" and obviously didn't do the best job proofreading.

@Toby: You know, I'm convinced your example says something about the difference between MA and NC. It's like lane lines in Mass. -- there aren't any. Figure it out. Similar with the hanging sign; use a bit of deception to make sure no one hits the bridge. Hey, it works.

NC's DOT is as starched-shirt as Sheriff Andy's uniform - witness the obsession with marking every US highway route on road signs, a la I-85 / US 15 / US 501 / US 70. In Mass, you're just damn lucky if the road actually goes where you want without ending abruptly or having massive potholes.

@Scott: that is a hilarious photo. Kinda tells it all right there, doesn't it?


I like this story even better if I imagine you telling it on a street corner, wearing a seersucker suit and your best hat, trying to raise money for the moral betterment of bloggers everywhere.

Elizabeth Vigdor

Oh you are so right about lane lines in MA. I remember going home to Seattle after living in Boston for many years, coming up to an intersection and doing what I always did - squeezing myself in between the cars already stopped, because there was room. Only then did I realize that I was actually straddling a nice, clearly painted line. So embarrassing, esp. after growing up where traffic rules are actually followed. Amazing how fast that was drummed out of me in MA.


There is no need for feelings of guilt, Kevin. This is America. Every man (and bridge) for himself. Love it or leave it... if you're truck is taller than 11'8", that is.


@Toby: the chains help, and are a nice low-tech, almost zero-maintenance solution. But they still aren't idiot proof.


I wonder how many blame it on their GPS?

Kevin Farmer

The barrier went up a few years ago after a large crane collided with the bridge and wedged about fifteen feet up the length of the boom. There was some damage to the tracks, and I seem to recall RR traffic being re-routed for a while while repairs were made.

This is all ha-ha/very funny right now, but some day somebody is going to die at that bridge. People drive like maniacs on that part of Gregson. A truck will hit the barrier and come to an abrupt halt, and the person behind them will not stop in time.

A simple detour for all trucks will save everybody a lot of hassle, and quite probably, a life or two.


Kevin, I was shocked and appalled until I realized you had no choice. Journalistic integrity forbade you from interfering in the unfolding story.

Me, I read the story to the end. No excuse!

admin 2m40

Well, have a look on this "serial-underpass" in France : http://www.2m40.com
Have fun !


Yes - The Storrow Drive underpasses are very visably marked......and yet every September there is always somebody in a rental truck who is convinced that the signs don't apply to them with predicable results.

You just can't fix stupid.....particlularly when you add a heaping portion of Ivy League arrogance.


reading that mindless word salad was worse then being stuck in traffic.

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