You might say that going viral is the beginning of the end for the person or thing in question. An immense wave of attention and then… it’s over. Forgotten. Basically never even happened.
But the Norfolk Southern–Gregson Street Overpass in Durham, North Carolina — aka the 11 Foot 8 Bridge, or the Can Opener — was an internet phenomenon that lived to virtually unprecedented old age. Maybe that’s because its fame simmered without coming to a boil; it was like the proverbial hole-in-the-wall restaurant only locals know about. The proprietor was Jürgen Henn, who, in April 2008, aware of the unusually low railroad trestle’s reputation for damaging trucks too tall to pass beneath it, set up a camera in his nearby office to document the crashes.
The result was 11foot8.com, a site that now hosts more than 140 videos of trucks slamming into the bridge, which sometimes peels off the top of the vehicle entirely (hence “the Can Opener”).
Henn estimates about one collision a month, despite the extensive signage and an elaborate light sensor system warning drivers if their truck, RV or bus is overheight. And indeed, the joys of watching the Can Opener at work have much to do with human fallibility. We created this problem for ourselves, and we seem bent on suffering the consequences forever. Except that, after 11 glorious years, the Durham Transportation Department has finally taken it upon themselves to raise the bridge eight inches — the most elevation they can offer without dismantling another crossing nearby. (Thanks to a sewage line, the road cannot be lowered.)
This is no tragedy for people just trying to move their furniture in Budget trucks. The rest of us, however, are losing something special — a monument to failure.
The poetics of a heavily reinforced 79-year-old railway trestle, this infrastructure that hints at the solid and sensible transport culture we could have had, ripping our big dumb highway monsters apart? Stunning. And there was comfort in the reliability of this same accident, whether we waited many weeks for the next one or, as in June 2015, two rental trucks failed the 11 Foot 8 challenge within a span of just four hours. Can Opener videos were YouTube favorites as the platform came of age; early web communities like Fark enjoyed keeping tabs on the overpass, and the subreddit r/11foot8, with 55,000 subscribers, now trades in stories and footage of similarly unforgiving bridges chomping metal. Others are lower, but the Beast of Gregson Street is the fan favorite.
It isn’t simply our appetite for destruction that draws us to the bridge, enticing us even to buy the metal scraps retrieved after a crash. Watching it thwart yet another inexperienced, distracted or stubborn driver is not like watching a demolition derby. There is a higher and more elementary reason to love these clips: the thrill of anticipation. We hit “play” knowing this will not fit under that, as surely as we know a baby will not fit the square peg into a round hole. In a world of doubt and puzzlement, the Can Opener is a reassuring certainty. As long as you avoid becoming its victim — and Henn’s videos really should be required viewing for anyone who wants to get behind the wheel of a semi — you’re free to love the addictive catharsis it gives. Those times it cleanly shaves a truck’s roof are, for my money, a powerful kind of visual ASMR.
I suppose it’s selfish to want more from the 11 Foot 8 Bridge when it’s already given us so much (and presents an obvious safety hazard). Still, I won’t be alone in mourning this loss. The good news is that Durham isn’t raising it enough to save all trucks; at 12 foot 4, it could claim the occasional, if far less frequent, sacrifice. And each one will remind us of the golden decade we spent in thrall to its unbending, immovable splendor.
Thank you for your service, comrade, and may your retirement be a dignified affair. You will always have our gratitude — and respect.