In northwest Windsor, bulldozers cover piles of garbage with soil while bird watchers focus a scope on the gulls that land and take flight. At one time, every town in Connecticut had at least one landfill for household trash, but Windsor's is the last. Environmental concerns have wisely made landfills increasingly difficult to locate. What we throw away after composting and recycling now goes to waste-to-energy plants.
Landfills might be a thing of the past, but the state is riddled with hundreds of old dumps. Some have dramatically changed our topography, as any passing motorist can see from the steep mountain of garbage that rises along I-91 north of Hartford, where once there was a low spot along the river. Many people hunt for bottles, buttons, ceramics and other treasures at long-closed sites.
Trash exists wherever people have dwelt, and sometimes what is thrown away lasts longer than what is valued, as is the case with the shell middens left by Native Americans thousands of years ago. State Archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni notes that 18th-century trash was broadcast out of windows and doors. Such was the case at the large Hatheway House in Suffield, where tobacco pipes, coins and glass were excavated. As the landscape became more crowded in the 19th century, and society generated more garbage, farmers dumped that trash in depressions on the back 40.
Before the turn of the 20th century, smaller lots and more trash made municipal dumps a necessity. Through the 1950s, these locations were usable almost indefinitely because trash was reduced to ashes by burning. Air pollution concerns ended this practice and led to the sanitary landfill, where garbage was covered with soil and mounded and shaped to shed water and reduce pollution of aquifers and streams. As dumps reached capacity, garbage was brought to regional facilities such as Hartford's.
At the end of Shetucket Turnpike in Voluntown not long ago, I found bits of pottery, rusted hardware and glass fragments not far from old foundations hidden among the trees. Beyond a low stone wall on Route 82 in Salem where the Dolbeare Tavern once stood, pieces of wire, rusted metal, and the remains of shoes and bottles can still be found in the humus.
Ravines and river banks were often the site of early dumps. On Route 138 along a hillside just west of Jewett City is a steep declivity that descends in a series of uneven humps. This hubbly ground results from mounds of trash covered by decades of leaves and detritus. Treasure seekers have dug away at the slope, uncovering machine parts, rusting cans, animal bones, wood fragments, coal ash and oyster shells. Canton once had a dump along the edge of the Farmington River off Powder Mill Road, and objects discarded long ago are still visible.
Late 20th-century landfills often appear as large grassy hills. Obvious examples include one in Shelton along the Housatonic River north of the Sikorsky plant and New Haven's, which rises like a Gibraltar out of a phragmites swamp along I-91 near Exit 8.
You can tell a lot about a people by their trash. The landfills that dot the Connecticut landscape are repositories of cultural information likely to be of interest to future generations. These preternatural landforms are not just waste spaces. Old landfill sites have been recycled as athletic fields, parking lots and even public and commercial building sites. Windsor's will eventually be made a part of an adjacent park. The old Milford landfill — rising 50 feet above the beach at Silver Sands State Park — offers a spectacular view of Long Island Sound. Someday it will feature a pavilion for picnics and weddings, with trails and a dramatic drive to the summit.
Some might think that old garbage dumps, like the trash in them, are best kept out of sight and out of mind. But they are a fascinating asset that provides our landscape with complexity, interest and texture.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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