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Project Documerica – 1970s EPA Automotive Junkyard Images

On highway trips taken back and forth between Texas to Washington, DC, during 1963 and 1964, Lady Bird and President Johnson became concerned with the endless number of ugly billboards and auto junkyards they witnessed next to the highways on each of their journeys. In his 1965 State of the Union Address, the President introduced the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 that began some of the first efforts to clean up the Nation’s landscape.

In 1970 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed by President Nixon and the Agency began its efforts to clean up environmental issues. At the time, the EPA identified the thousands of automotive junkyards across the land as a major source of ground, air, and water pollution.

At the same time, the EPA formed “Project Documerica” and hired freelance photographers to capture environmental hotspots on film. This set of eight images shows some of the wrecking yards and automobile dumping grounds across the land recorded by the cameramen. Soon afterwards the Agency and lawmakers set a series rules and regulations covering the operation of auto wrecking yards in action and began enforcing them in an effort to clamp down on the pollution caused by the industry.

  • The lead image by Arthur Tress shows a 1963 Dodge station wagon half buried in beach sand at an auto dumping ground at Breezy Point, south of Jamaica Bay, outside of New York City.

Abandoned Automobiles New Orleans LA

  • Automotive dumping ground in New Orleans, Louisiana – Marc St. Gil.

Cars at Edge River Slowing Erosion in AZ

  • Automobiles on the side of a stream bed in Navago County, Arizona – Terry Eiler.

Portland, OR Junkyard 1970

  • Above and below a Portland, Oregon wrecking yard – David Falconer.

Junkyard in Oregon Early-1970s

Junkyard Santa Fe New Mexico

  • Car and trucks form a wall in Santa Fe, New Mexico – Marc St. Gil.

Junkyard New Bedford, MA early 1970s

  • New Bedford Massachusetts junkyard – Ernst Halberstadt.

Burning Car Batteries Houston Texas

  • Automotive batteries being burned in Houston, Texas – Marc St. Gil.

24 responses to “Project Documerica – 1970s EPA Automotive Junkyard Images

  1. While I’m all for cleaning up vehicles lining the streets, or all askew in yards, I think they went too far and I’m also in favor of draining liquids, but as long as they are out of sight or behind a fence, what’s the harm? Wisconsin is almost totally void of any yards now, and are replaced by “Automotive Recycling Facilities”, where cars are dismantled and catalogued accordingly. One of my favorite past times was walking through junkyards. It was like a car show, of sorts. I always wondered about the rusty ones, that served the people, and the wrecks, how someone’s live was turned upside down in an instant. Probably just as well now, as these recycling facilities are full of Kia’s and SUV’s with front end damage. Younger generations will miss out on that, if any interest even remains.

  2. i’m living in france
    in the 70’s, i was a child and enjoy to play in kind of these cars
    in the 80’s, i’m please to find old car near barn, warehouse or bush
    now, all is clean…
    i own an ’66 opel kadett very rusty. i’m asking if i put the car in the garden for my children,
    last week, i push out of the garage my ’64 simca ariane, and i say “whooaoo, like in the 80’s!” i take some pictures and sent it to my friends

    • I grew up in Northwestern Connecticut, and in the mid-1970s spent many, many hours and days at “Bushey’s” Junkyard in Torrington, CT.

      At that time, small wrecking yards were a welcome option for strapped young people to buy second-hand at a big discount and the parts hunting and buying experience was always priceless!!!

  3. Think about that first sentence for a minute: On highway trips taken back and forth between Texas to Washington, DC, during 1963 and 1964, Lady Bird and President Johnson …

    When do you suppose was the last time a President and First Lady took an actual “highway trip”?

    I always loved junkyards and I can remember the day when you could go in and say “I’m looking for a drive shaft for a ’39 Ford.” And the guy would say ,”There’s one out there somewhere, go take a look” and I could find the car, have them roll it over and pull out the torque tube & rear axle assembly and load them in my car! Been there, done that!

    • 63 and 64 were a little late for the President and First Lady to drive, but LBJ and Lady Bird did drive the Texas-DC route many times in the 1940’s when LBJ was a Congressman, and early in his Senate career.

      • Mike, What seemed to be a credible US government reference was found when writing the text that pointed to the fact that the couple actually took the trip by car (Secret Service) while serving in Washington. I have also found that the written word is wrong on many occasions.

        • A “CREDIBLE US government reference” is a phrase which to me seems like an oxymoron – kind of like saying, a “law-abiding criminal!” 🙂

    • I remember, as a dumb kid, asking the grizzled old SOB who was drinking Jack at 11 AM and hogging the wood stove “Ya have a center carrier bearing for a ’64 Imperial?” and being laughed outa the yard…

  4. When I was in High School I heard rumors of Calvin West’s junkyard in Limestone, ME. – just a few towns over from me. I also heard how he protected his turf like the proverbial junkyard dog only armed with a shotgun.

    One day I went over for a visit. Calvin was working on an old kerosene powered tractor from the 20’s. When I asked to look around he very bluntly told me to get off his property. (not a good start) Drawing on courage I had no idea I had I stuck around. I began asking him questions about the tractor – handing him wrenches etc. until finally he told me that since I wasn’t going to leave I might as well look around. My first thought was “Wow! I am in!” than he told me that I couldn’t cross the railroad tracks to look over that part of the hoard and if I opened a hood, truck or door he would blow my kneecaps off.

    Anyway, with the pleasantries over I headed out to explore. Wandering past row after row of 40’s and 50’s Americana I was in heaven. A 1936 Chevy really caught my attention as well as a 1930’s Nash hearse, a DKW, a model T mail (you could just make out the lettering on the few remaining boards) and a late teens Aherns-Fox?? Fire truck. ever mindful of my fondness for my kneecaps I obeyed his instructions to the letter! Though I must admit the urge to peak under the hood of a 65 or 66 GTO was almost worth the risk.

    Later, as an adult I went back – in fact somewhere I have a VHS tape of that visit. I was even allowed to cross the railroad tracks, (even more treasures!) It was like going to a 1950’s drive in movie where everyone simply left their cars and walked home. Anyway it’s all gone now as is Calvin who always drove an old police cruiser. Having moved back to the region after a 30 year absence a few weeks ago we passed by the site – an abandoned house trailer and an ever shrinking over grown field are all that remain.

  5. First time I been able to identify so many of the cars in the pictures. First things I remember buying from an old-time yard was a rocker arm and a distributor rotor for a ’52 Roadmaster engine we were working on in high school shop class. The closest thing now is them pull-yer-own yards, where I got what I needed to install cruise control on my ex-police ’88 Caprice. Most reliable car I ever owned–still drive it.

  6. Many Massachusetts junk yard visits to refurbish my first car, a 1946 Ford convertible. Secured a Zephyr transmission thinking it would hold up to the Chevy V-8 transplant in the Ford. It didn’t.
    Generators, starters, etc. all taken off by myself when I found the one I needed.

  7. I used to go to wrecking yards, now they’re called pick-n-pull, and even they’re disapearing, Madera Ca had a Pick-a-Part, now gone, soon to be replaced with almond trees. A company called LKQ is the new Pick-n-Pull, you call them and pay for the part, they send it to you,
    The old America you once knew is disappearing right before your eyes thanks to the EPA.

  8. Grew up in Detroit in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. Worked at a Sunoco station from 62 to 65. Down the street was Harry & Son’s Auto Parts where you could buy new or used parts. I remember rebuilt Ford and Chevy 3 speed manual transmissions were $19.95. And you could wander through and look for parts whenever you wanted to.

  9. I used the two local “furrin-car” junk yards to keep my 1960 Volvo going for the five-years I had it. Dealer prices were far out of my college student budget though occasionally I had to suck it up and pay because Swedish parts just didn’t exist in great numbers around Kansas City back then. Squatting in a freezing rain while trying to liberate a left rear fender (they were held with an amazing number of very tight screws) was part of the “fun” but getting charged for the taillight housing mounted on it wasn’t in my plan!
    I still slow down and scan those few roadside yards still seen on rural midwestern backroads.

  10. Those cars parked along the stream bed in Navajo County, Arizona were there for erosion control. We used to drive over there from southern California to get parts off those cars that we needed and to just wander along the river bank to see what cars were there. Those were great times in the ’50s and ’60s.

  11. MyDad and Uncle owned3 Boys Auto Wrecking inMadera,California. Was like another work in the yard. I love living right in the wrecking yard. Was an adventure every day. Wish my kids could of experienced my childhood.

  12. I live in Uruguay,till some 10 years ago our streets were our junkyards but whith cars running!.Slowly they started to disapear… I enjoy those lots with cars piled,I bought lots of partas there.Now is hard to find parts for a classic…our streets are full of Chinese made cars and motorcycles .Streets look like Vietnam or Malaysian towns!!!.

  13. Un-elected, enforcing ‘compliance’ (not law) are responsible for building “need” into their existence. So, the “evil” they were created to remove “junk yards”, then they must broadly defined junk yard to include anything auto no running. (picture 1 obviously hurricane disaster not junk yard). Bureaucrats never “finish” their job… no more junk yards they change their own purpose to include old cars anywhere. History is destroyed in the name of “protecting” people.

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