Hidden Gems

Jean Allsopp
Buried on the coastline of a Northern California lumber town, a treasure trove awaits.

A secret beach lures visitors in the know to Fort Bragg, an unpretentious town in Northern California. So much sea glass smothers this hidden shoreline that you might think a truck unloaded shimmering shards all over its rocky coves―and that's not too far from the truth. What is now called Glass Beach began as this city's garbage dump.

You could easily miss the town while driving north from boutique- and B&B-filled Mendocino. Past bucolic pastures and plunging cliffs, diners and gas stations mark the gateway to this unassuming coastal spot. Head to the end of Elm Street, just north of the Georgia-Pacific lumber lot, but don't expect billboards or neon signs. Only a dirt path indicates that the end of the rainbow lies beyond.

Shimmy down to the shore's edge. Before long, you'll be standing on it like a leprechaun on a pile of gold coins, dancing a little jig. Emerald, ocher, amber, and ruby bits of ground glass sparkle beneath your feet and in the tumbling tide, where years of surf have polished them to a muffled shine. A handful of the stuff might reveal a kaleidoscope of shapes and colors―but also some seaweed, rusty metal pieces, and a spark plug or two. A dinner plate or hubcap sticks out oddly from the side of the cliff, prima facie evidence that this jeweled beach began its life in a less glamorous form.

Early in the 20th century, residents of Fort Bragg pitched their household waste―glass, kitchen appliances, and sometimes, whole cars―over these cliffs, then owned by Union Lumber Company and known locally as "The Dumps." Wilbur Lawson, 83, of the Fort Bragg-Mendocino Coast Historical Society, remembers poking around the junkyard as a kid during the 1930s. "There was always a fire lit in order to reduce the trash pile," he says, which might explain how that chinaware melded into a slab of solid rock. "This was a playground for us," he recalls. Despite rumors, he says a glass-bottle factory never existed on this coastline.

Fort Bragg's leaders wised up in 1967 and closed the area. The pounding surf began to heal the shore over the next several decades, grinding the castoffs into the glittering treasure that now covers the beach. Since then, the place has become a beachcombers' paradise and a living science lesson in one. Curious visitors and occasional school groups sift through sandy crevices, filling buckets, pockets, and purses with colorful finds. Susan and Vernon Southerland trekked from Long Beach, California, with their family to spend quality time together combing the quirky beach. "There's history in these rocks," says Susan, as they busily collect green shards, which lay plentifully among the royal blue, frosted white, and clear flecks. According to Wilbur, automobile companies started making car taillights out of plastic instead of glass after World War II. Consequently, red sea glass is a rarity.

The next chapter of this story has yet to be written―the California State Parks department recently acquired the 38-acre site. Its new parent, MacKerricher State Park, officially extends south of Pudding Creek to include this somewhat-ignored stretch into its recreational coastline. Whether the new status will prohibit delighted scavengers from dragging home buckets of state property remains unknown. At least for now, it continues to be a covert operation passed through word-of-mouth. But, for the record―you didn't hear about it from me.

Fort Bragg-Mendocino Coast Historical Society; 707/961-2840

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A must-have for beachcombers (especially those who prefer shimmering glass fragments over shells), Pure Sea Glass offers, amidst breathtaking images, intriguing facts and fascinating history about the tiny shards of glass washed up by the sea. For more information, visit pureseaglass.com.

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