Our destination Friday evening was the North Pole. We left the depot in Bryson City, North Carolina promptly at 5 PM aboard the Polar Express and settled into our booths in the first class car dubbed Carolina Shine. We shared the car with other families also eager to get to the North Pole to see Santa. Everyone was in a festive mood and most everyone was in their pajamas, especially the younger travelers. We were served cookies, candy bars, and plenty of hot chocolate. Excitement was palpable and blood sugars were high. Our route to the North Pole took us along a countryside train track past pumpkin patches and plowed fields, mobile homes and mini-mansions. We had to stop one time for a herd of about one thousand caribou, or so we were told. We saw bald eagles soaring through the skies as dusk seeped in around the farms and fields.
As the train rumbled across the trestle spanning the Tuckasegee River (the “Tuck”) and we looked back to the shoreline, we were startled to see the front ends of cars that were stacked at the water’s edge with dirt and foliage atop and between them. They appeared to have been buried long ago. We just sat there trying to make sense of it because it was something we had never seen before. We couldn’t stop chattering about it because it was just such a weird sight to see. It was like the river’s edge was used as a junkyard many years ago.
When we returned to Highlands, a little Google search revealed that junk cars were used all over the country from the late 1920s into the 1950s in rivers to prevent erosion. They were stacked up along the curves where the water current was eroding the banks. The concept proved to be effective if not exactly esthetically appealing or environmentally sound. An old-timer in the area recalls picking up junk cars, crushing them, engine and all, and using a bulldozer to put them in place. He added that it also benefited the area because old junk cars were an eyesore just sitting around rusting in the neighborhoods. The junk cars were even used in some places to build up low areas along the riverside. At some point somewhere in the country, it was nicknamed “Detroit Riprap.”
The Clean Water Act of 1972 brought the practice to a halt. In the late 70s or early 80s, a bunch of environmentalists came to Swain County, North Carolina about another matter and the junked cars as riprap had them in a tizzy. They wanted the cars removed, but as with a lot of things, there was no money for the project, so the idea was dropped as soon as they left the county.
Lest you think the practice was only a Southern backwoods idea, let me disabuse you of that notion. It turns out that using old junk cars in rivers was a common practice in many Midwest and Western states as well. You can find Detroit Riprap in Ohio, Nebraska, Colorado, and Montana, just to name a few states where it was employed.
You just have to love this country. Not only is it incredibly beautiful and full of amazing people; it’s also crazy quirky. You never know when you will come across something zany like Detroit Riprap. And who would have thought that we’d see something like that from a train on the way to the North Pole?