‘The Dumps” is a term I never heard in reference to a landfill until I moved to Sonoma County 30 years ago.
I’d lived on the East Coast, and in Southern and Northern California and spent time in other parts of the country. I’d been all over, but had never heard it called “The Dumps.” I knew “down in the dumps” for feeling unhappy or depressed. But trash was always hauled to the dump, singular.
After moving here, I noticed some longtime residents saying things like, “Guess it’s time to haul this debris to the Dumps.” They were talking about a single trip, not a tour of waste facilities.
I like to think “The Dumps” is a term unique to the county, a little shred of a local dialect.
They used to be all over the place. In the woods behind my childhood home in rural New Jersey (a state famous for its toxic waste dump sites), was an old neighborhood dump with bottles and license plates from the 1920s. My friends and I spent hours poking around there — it was high entertainment.
Hiking Sonoma County’s backwoods, it’s not uncommon to discover trash heaps near old homesteads (anything over 50 years old is a protected archaeological site and should not be disturbed). Before regular garbage pickup began, household refuse was disposed conveniently nearby.
There were middens near indigenous villages where animal bones, shells and other debris were piled into mounds; hundreds of these were recorded around the edges of San Francisco Bay at the turn of the 20th century.
Emeryville’s Shellmound Street marks the location of the largest one, which was over 60 feet high and 350 feet across. It represented thousands of years of human occupation.
Sadly, that mound and many others have been largely destroyed by development; as recently as 2002 a mall was built on the Emeryville site despite protests by the indigenous community and others.
As a young child I remember my parents burning trash in a metal drum behind the house.
You can still find relic concrete incinerators used for the same purpose in local backyards. As a teenager I earned my allowance hauling the garbage can out to the road.
When the truck came, there was no mechanical arm — two men jumped off the back and emptied the cans by hand.
I don’t know when the county’s Central Landfill, which opened on Mecham Road in the 1970s, was first called “The Dumps.” But those who use the term are mostly longtime residents.
In recent years another phrase, spoken by relative newcomers, has appeared in the county lexicon.
It’s probably a linguistic immigrant from Southern California that was coined in the freeway’s early days: the practice of adding “The” to a highway number. As in “Take ‘The 101’ to San Francisco.”
Which is fine. But if you’re trying to get to “The Dumps,” plain old 101 is still good enough.