That Overpass: Kamikazee Truckers Force East Hampton to Raise RR Trestle

The Hook Mill windmill in East Hampton
The Hook Mill windmill in East Hampton, Photo: Dan Rattiner

If there were ever an example of how public protests can make a difference, consider what has happened at the railroad overpass on North Main Street in East Hampton.

Five years ago, this village decided it had seen enough drivers of tall trucks failing to negotiate their vehicles successfully under the overpass. No one would be injured, but crashes happened about five times a year. Sometimes the trucks would wedge halfway through. Sometimes the trucks would hit the side of the overpass. In either case, it would be a mess.

This would happen in spite of the big yellow sign that read 10’–0” LOW CLEARANCE BRIDGE AHEAD on the side of the overpass. The village kept a stockroom full of these signs to keep ahead of the game.

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To stop this, the village decided to take extreme measures. Three enormous yellow street signs reading 10’–0” LOW CLEARANCE BRIDGE AHEAD were soon planted along North Main Street where the truckers approach the overpass. One was 100 feet from the overpass. The next was 50 feet from it and the third was just 20 feet from it. Unfortunately, this part of North Main Street runs alongside the easterly side of the grassy lawn upon which sits the beautiful historic 1806 windmill, “Hook Mill.” The forest of signs almost completely blocked the splendid view of the windmill.

Residents objected to this horrible blocking of the mill. The village said they were needed to stop people smashing into the overpass.

For the next four years, the number of trucks crashing into the overpass reduced from five a year to, on average, four. The signs brought only a slight improvement, the protesters noted. East Hampton has been called the most beautiful village in America. Surely the village would lose that designation if those enormous signs remained up.

Protests continued, but the village would not be moved. And so, last November, a small group of activists decided it was time to take action. Meeting secretly at the Veterans of Foreign Wars building nearby, they created a group called “Overpass Bashers.” The word went out to trucking companies in the area, particularly to those committed to the beautification of North Main Street. “Overpass Bashers” was looking for drivers who would deliberately crash tall trucks into the side of the overpass. The goal would be to increase the number of crashes and convince the village fathers that these signs were not only a complete failure, but were actually a distraction causing more and more crashes. Remove the signs!

The owners of nearby trucking companies answered the call. Each of them had an old tall truck or two in the yard they could spare. Beginning in January, selected drivers, calling themselves “Kamikazes,” began deliberately smashing their trucks into the side of the overpass once a month. At this rate, there would be a dozen “Overpass Bashers” accidents over the course of 2017. If that wouldn’t persuade the village to give up the ghost on the signs, nothing would.

During the first three months of this year, officials were clearing out one truck wreckage on North Main Street just in time for the next. It made no sense. The signs were there. How could these truckers keep failing to see them? By April 17, just four months into this effort, the sixth crash of the year took place—four by the Kamikazes and two by others. The two others had been a garbage truck and a box truck. The effort was heading, if this continued, to 18 crashes in 2017.

And so, the village caved. This past Monday, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced it will spend almost $20 million to raise the overpass from 10 feet to 14 feet so even the tallest truck can proceed under it. When the project is completed—it is expected to take a year and a half—the big yellow signs will come down, once again revealing the breathtaking beauty of Hook Mill. The project will also include raising the nearby Accabonac overpass from 10 and-a-half feet to 14 feet.

Jubilation in the Veterans of Foreign Wars building overtook the membership of the “Overpass Bashers” as that organization voted itself out of business, its work done.

So there you have it. Powerful protests get things done. Hooray for America.

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