Most stories about humans trashing the environment end with humans suffering the consequences. But not all of them.
Consider the case of Glass Beach, a one-time seaside dump in Fort Bragg, about 200 miles north of San Francisco. Starting in the early 1900s, and continuing for more than a half-century, residents tossed unthinkable amounts of detritus off a bluff and into the surf. They hoped their garbage would simply drift into the sea and out of their lives forever, but instead, something else happened.
Their refuse was returned to them as treasure.
"It's strange how an ugly old toxic dump turned into such a beautiful beach," wrote Libby Lane, who authored a short book about the dump while a Mendocino Middle School student in 1996.
Not only did the sea transform Fort Bragg's trash, but it put the otherwise ordinary logging town on the map. People traveled across the world to behold and plunder Glass Beach, and although much of the booty has been collected, the beach remains among the world's most famous destinations for sea glass.
The origins of Glass Beach
It all began with the 1906 earthquake.
The same massive quake that famously decimated San Francisco also reduced many of Fort Bragg's structures to rubble and ashes. Before the disaster, most people burned their trash or buried it in their own backyards. But the town opted to dispose of the earthquake's debris by bulldozing it off the 30-foot-high headlands and onto the small beach below.
With a precedent set for disposing of waste on the nearby beach, the sea birds rarely went hungry. After some years of depositing debris there, though, it became clear that the sea was returning it.
"Nothing washes away here," says Captain Cass Forrington, sea glass jewelry maker, self-taught cosmologist and owner of the Sea Glass Museum in Fort Bragg. The reason, he says, is that the rock formations have created unique wave patterns that push everything back to the beach.
What that meant back in the 1940s was that Fort Bragg needed another dump. And then another one. The town created the new dumps just up the beach from the first one. The final site, which was active from 1949 to 1967, was filthy, rat-infested and perpetually on fire, says Buster Dyer, a glassblowing artist who co-owns a gallery with his wife Trish in Fort Bragg.
There was a ramp, Dyer says, and people just backed their vehicles up and dumped whatever they wanted: household trash, refrigerators, laundry machines. Sometimes they sent entire cars down the bluff.
It developed into a social scene, with lumber mill workers hanging around, teenagers learning to drive, and little kids coming to shoot rats with marbles. When the fire went out, people would toss in Molotov cocktails to get it started again.
In 1967, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Board closed the dump, which contained toxic materials. As the years passed, the biodegradable items degraded, and scavengers and artists grabbed up all the scrap metal and anything else of value. What was left behind was an astounding amount of multi-colored glass.
'The world's largest natural tumbler'
"There was so much of it at the start, and it was just as far as you could see," says fisherman and artist Mitch White, who remembers visiting the dump as a young boy. "You'd dig, and you'd dig down far, and there was still glass."
Forrington, who for 27 years traveled the world as a sea captain, moved to Fort Bragg in 1979. When he went to see Glass Beach for the first time, "I was totally unimpressed," he says, and that's because the glass pieces were a bit too rough for his liking.
For many years, the people of Fort Bragg had that early iteration of Glass Beach all to themselves. Children went on field trips there, and took away glass and pottery shards by the bucketful to make art. But soon news reports of the legendary glass beach circulated, and crowds followed.
When Forrington revisited the beach in 2005, as many as 1,000 people a day were descending on Glass Beach, and he understood why. The glass looked completely different by then. It had all smoothed out.
He declared Glass Beach "the world's largest natural tumbler," and began researching the origins of different colors. Jade sea glass likely came from Depression-era tableware and ornamental items like lampshades. Purple was rare, and came from art glass or apothecary jars. Orange came from turn signals on old cars, and red — the rarest color — came from tail lights.
Forrington was interested in some extra cash. So he started collecting the best pieces and turning them into jewelry. In 2008, he opened the Sea Glass Museum, and today, his sea glass collection is one of the most extensive in the world.
"I find it all; I make it all. I'm a one-man band," the wizard-bearded Forrington says from behind a display case filled with sea glass jewelry.
Visiting the Sea Glass Museum
Located on North Main Street at the back of the Union Lumber Company Store, the museum exhaustively documents the history of Glass Beach, with books, articles and mounted TVs playing videos of old news stories on loop. Forrington's own book, "Beaches of Glass: A History & Tour of the Glass Beaches of Fort Bragg, California," features prominently.
Display cases full of glass abound. Some pieces, containing trace amounts of uranium, glow neon in a blacklight room. There are also photographs of both the beach and local wildlife, including sea gulls, which Forrington adores. He has even given them names, such as Claude and Maude.
Near the checkout area, a video and a stack of maps offer directions to the three former dump sites, which can be tricky to find. Dump one, the original site near, is reachable only by kayak or swimming — unless you go at a negative tide. Site two is a bit north, and can be accessed by parking at Noyo Headlands Park, then following the Coastal Trail south and eventually navigating down the bluff. Site three, the official Glass Beach, is located within MacKerricher State Park, and can be reached on a trail leading north from the parking lot. Much of the glass from that site is gone, says Nancy Fowler, co-owner of the Glass Beach Inn.
Glass Beach today
These days, taking glass from site three within the state park is forbidden. But people still travel from afar to stay at the inn and go treasure hunting at the other sites, Fowler says, which is legal.
For those who are patient, there's still a decent amount of sea glass to be found, particularly at site two after a storm. The smaller pieces that remain on the beach are of little value and are mostly common colors like green, amber and clear. But every now and then, someone stumbles on something special.
"There's still some great spots," Fowler says. "You just have to pick a spot, sit there and start digging."
Oddly enough, it hasn't just been humans who have benefited from decades of pollution at Glass Beach, says Forrington. Eventually, the glass also offered benefits to the marine environment.
As glass and pottery shards dissolve in salt water, they release minerals that become the basis of the food chain, he says. The glass pieces also have air pockets between them that become habitats for tiny shrimps, worms, eels and insects.
"These things nourish the food chain and the marine environment in Fort Bragg, making it a very unique place," Forrington wrote in his book. "This has created a wonderful accidental garden under the sea."
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