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

By Susan C. Kim
January 06, 2006
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Jean Allsopp

A secret beach lures visitors in the know to Fort Bragg, anunpretentious town in Northern California. So much sea glasssmothers this hidden shoreline that you might think a truckunloaded shimmering shards all over its rocky coves―andthat's not too far from the truth. What is now called Glass Beachbegan as this city's garbage dump.

You could easily miss the town while driving north fromboutique- and B&B-filled Mendocino. Past bucolic pastures andplunging cliffs, diners and gas stations mark the gateway to thisunassuming coastal spot. Head to the end of Elm Street, just northof the Georgia-Pacific lumber lot, but don't expect billboards orneon signs. Only a dirt path indicates that the end of the rainbowlies beyond.

Shimmy down to the shore's edge. Before long, you'll be standingon it like a leprechaun on a pile of gold coins, dancing a littlejig. Emerald, ocher, amber, and ruby bits of ground glass sparklebeneath your feet and in the tumbling tide, where years of surfhave polished them to a muffled shine. A handful of the stuff mightreveal a kaleidoscope of shapes and colors―but also someseaweed, rusty metal pieces, and a spark plug or two. A dinnerplate or hubcap sticks out oddly from the side of the cliff, primafacie evidence that this jeweled beach began its life in a lessglamorous form.

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

Fort Bragg's leaders wised up in 1967 and closed the area. Thepounding surf began to heal the shore over the next severaldecades, grinding the castoffs into the glittering treasure thatnow covers the beach. Since then, the place has become abeachcombers' paradise and a living science lesson in one. Curiousvisitors and occasional school groups sift through sandy crevices,filling buckets, pockets, and purses with colorful finds. Susan andVernon Southerland trekked from Long Beach, California, with theirfamily to spend quality time together combing the quirky beach."There's history in these rocks," says Susan, as they busilycollect green shards, which lay plentifully among the royal blue,frosted white, and clear flecks. According to Wilbur, automobilecompanies started making car taillights out of plastic instead ofglass after World War II. Consequently, red sea glass is ararity.

The next chapter of this story has yet to be written―theCalifornia State Parks department recently acquired the 38-acresite. Its new parent, MacKerricher State Park, officially extendssouth of Pudding Creek to include this somewhat-ignored stretchinto its recreational coastline. Whether the new status willprohibit delighted scavengers from dragging home buckets of stateproperty remains unknown. At least for now, it continues to be acovert operation passed through word-of-mouth. But, for therecord―you didn't hear about it from me.

Fort Bragg-Mendocino Coast HistoricalSociety; 707/961-2840

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