Trash Dumps and the Hidden History of the Bay Shoreline

Click here to view the interactive map which accompanies this post.

First there were marshes; then there were dumps. The dumps were eventually turned into regulated landfills, and the landfills into shoreline parks.

After the Gold Rush, a full one-third of the San Francisco Bay was diked off or filled in for development. Over three dozen trash dumps (both official and unofficial) lined the Bay shoreline. The public had access to less than six miles of shoreline, but far from being the recreational haven that the Bay Trail is today, the old shoreline greeted visitors with views of a struggling Bay choked with raw sewage and industrial pollution.

In 1961, three women mobilized thousands of residents to save the Bay from its path of destruction. Their movement was called Save The Bay, and it sought to stop the filling of the shoreline, the polluting of its waters, and to bring the Bay back from the brink. The movement was a success: one by one, the dumps were closed off, capped with fresh soil, and for the vast majority, turned into parks. There are over a dozen such parks open today, making up some of the most popular open spaces along the Bay shoreline with renowned views of the Bay atop what, unbeknownst to many, is thousands of tons of trash.

Click above to go to an interactive dump map
Click above to go to an interactive dump map

We have come a long way from the Dump Era of last century. Use this interactive map to explore what the Bay used to look like when dumps ruled the land. From a boy’s first bicycle scavenged among the rubble to an all-Italian worker-owned trash company, the stories embedded in this map paint a way of life now buried (though not so deeply) underground.

Take one classic scene from the Dump Era:

Let’s go back 50 year or so and imagine it’s a Saturday morning on the Peninsula. After cleaning out their garages and filling up car trunks…families took a trip to the dump on the Bay. Many came in their expensive cars absolutely loaded with trash, old-timers recall. Once at the dump, socializing began, as residents saw friends and people stood around and talked. Inevitably, a few brought along a bottle of wine. It soon turned into a dump party of sorts, while people scoured around looking at what others had dropped off.  Most cars went home with trunks once again filled from these precious free finds.[2]

Before there were dumps and dump parties, there were wetlands, home to a thriving habitat of flora and fauna. Decades of rampant filling in of shallow areas destroyed 90 percent of San Francisco Bay’s wetlands. Scientists say the Bay needs 100,000 acres of tidal marsh to thrive, more than double that which exists today.

Play your part in contributing to the revival of the Bay. Volunteer at one of our restoration sites.  Get outside and discover up-close the hidden history of the Bay shoreline. Visit one of the dumps-turned-parks featured here and see how far we have come from a time when the stench of garbage pervaded the flatlands and the Bay was best known as a receptacle for residents’ refuse. Take your dog for a walk at San Mateo’s Seal Point Park or bird-watch from Berkeley’s Caesar Chavez Park and you’ll be reminded that our history isn’t behind us – it’s lying right under our feet.


[1]Please note: this map is not exhaustive. If you know of any former dump sites not included, contact policyvolunteer@savesfbay.org.

[2] Diamond, Diana.  “Era ending – no more dumps,” Daily Post.  18 July 2011.

2 thoughts on “Trash Dumps and the Hidden History of the Bay Shoreline

  1. Is there a similar map for the South Bay? I know that there were multiple dumps along Coyote Creek in San Jose, for instance, but I’m not sure where they were. It would be interesting to see especially since a lot of that trash probably ended up in the Bay. Thanks!

  2. Maya focused on the Bay shoreline for this map, but it would be interesting to see where dumps existed along South Bay waterways.

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