About a mile downstream of the Duck Creek Bridge, on the north bank of the Yellowstone River, Rick Limpp is giving a guided tour of what looks like an automobile graveyard.
That’s a Rambler, early ’60s, he says, pointing to a rusted-out car whose front end is mostly gone, washed away by the flowing river.
There’s also a ’56 Mercury, an old Cadillac — “I don’t know the vintage,” Limpp says — and a ’58 Ford Fairlane.
He stops in front of another car and squints. “I think that’s an Edsel,” he says. “No, it’s a Mercury.”
Up and down the Yellowstone, and on many other rivers in the state, there are similar collections of old cars, placed on the banks to prevent erosion.
Riprap is the catch-all term to describe materials used for streambank stabilization. Other common materials include rock, dirt and chunks of concrete.
In the past, in the same era when no one thought twice about placing a car body on a riverbank, riprap might include appliances and old culverts, even balls of used barbed wire.
You might dismiss all forms of riprap as eyesores, as dangerous, even disgusting intrusions on a beautiful stretch of river. But the cars, some of them at least, exert a haunting attraction.
When cars were being used for riprap, junkyards were full of the big, all-steel sedans that made Detroit famous, when enormous fins were the order of the day, when a car was not just a method of transportation but an emblem of the American Dream.
A few decades of sitting alongside the river have transformed them into what might be mistaken for folk art. Some of them are still brightly colored, or rusted into odd blends of faded hues, like gasoline in water. There are old seat springs and rusty horns, bits of jagged glass still stuck in the windows and forlorn steering wheels covered with moss.
In some cases, a car sitting on its roof might be topped with a thick layer of dirt and sprouting vegetation, looking like a sod roof on a homesteader’s shack. Some of the old cars have been used so often for target practice that they look like the bullet-ridden car at the end of the movie “Bonnie and Clyde.”
And they made good riprap. Unlike dirt or rock or concrete, which could be carried away during a flood, these big, heavy cars usually stayed put. It helped that the cars were almost always reinforced by thick steel cables that passed through the bodies.
Upsteam of the Limpp place a few miles, also on the north bank, Ken Lawson explained how his grandfather, who still farms the land, anchored each end of the steel cable running through the cars to a post — a “deadhead” — buried in the field 50 feet from the river, sunk deep enough to avoid plows.
Lawson said the farm has been in the family since 1912. The cars were laid on the banks in the late 1950s, as far as he knows.
A Gazette photographer and reporter were on a river outing in early August when they ran into Lawson, who was boating with his family along the stretch of river fronting his grandfather’s farm.
Lawson said that when he saw the reporter standing near a line of automotive riprap with an open notebook, he assumed it was somebody taking notes for selling parts on eBay.
Yes, he said, it still happens all the time. People strip cars of parts, chrome, nameplates and other items prized by collectors or restorers. Lawson said he doesn’t care much for trespassers, but “anybody who asks, I tell them they can take what they want.”
Lawson said the cars were still in pretty good shape until an ice jam tore them up six or eight years ago. Before then, he said, “they weren’t near so beat up.”
On the Limpp property, the cables are anchored to cottonwood trees 50 or 75 feet away from the river, with automobile hoods bent around the tree trunks so the cables don’t eat through the wood.
Limpp’s property fronts Oscar’s Park, which he owns with his wife, Marcie. When Marcie’s father, Oscar Cooke, was alive, the place was known as Oscar’s Dreamland, a huge collection of antique tractors, engines, implements, buildings and curiosities.
Limpp says the cars were probably placed on the bank in the early ’60s, and Oscar Cooke bought the property in 1967 or ’68. Limpp says he hasn’t had to do any maintenance on the riprap, though someday he may have to bring in new riprap to replace cars that are carried off by rushing waters.
“It looks like Mother Nature’s gonna take them all away,” he says.