The Most Beautiful Garbage Dump in America

Written By: Susan A.  Cohen


If there were such a thing as a National Garbage Dump Beauty Contest, I believe Montauk would take the crown. Okay, perhaps I’ve gone too far because I haven’t actually traveled to all of the great scenic garbage dumps in America, but still, I want to claim this title for the Montauk Dump.

When I was around ten years old, I began making regular trips to “The Dump” as we called it, long before the Montauk landfill was capped and renamed the East Hampton Town Recycling & Disposal Center Montauk Transfer Station.  My father, mother, sister and I would  toss our bags of garbage into the trunk of our car and drive to the landfill in Hither Woods, just north of the new Montauk Highway.  Like any self-respecting overly dramatic child, I would hold my nose feigning disgust at the garbagy-smell in our car, but I never missed an opportunity to go for a field trip to The Dump.  I was usually the first one out of the car, carrying no garbage, nostrils no longer protected, for my mission was always the same.  I wanted to count the seagulls hovering above the heaping garbage mountain, and I wanted to go exploring.  According to at least one map, the site of the original landfill was close the highest point in East Hampton Township. From this perch, I transformed into Queen of The Dump, surveying my watery, bird and garbage filled world, a place where I imagined pirates came ashore to bury treasure. The Dump was as good at triggering my imagination as any library book, better perhaps because it was foot-to-sandy-soil real, with sweeping views that only wealthy people had.  Oh, and of course, there was all that garbage—tons and tons of it, beautiful garbage where my detective- self imagined someday finding a rare jewel or wooden box containing letters with Parisian postmarks or perhaps just something useful that I might cart back home.  Even then I instinctively understood A.R. Ammons when he wrote. “…the garbage trucks crawl as if in obeisance,/as if up ziggurats toward the high places gulls/and garbage keep alive/ offerings to the Gods.”  For me, The Dump provided a transcendental experience—connecting me to earth, air, sky, water, trash and imagination.

In her 1938 paper-bound book Montauk: Three Centuries of Romance, Sport and Adventure, Jeannette Edwards Rattray does not once mention the Montauk Dump because it did not yet exist.  She lists twenty one crucial topics from “Pirates and Smuggling” to “Wrecks and Wrecking” to “Montauk: Miami Beach of the North—1926” but not once does she explain where people dumped their trash.  Forty five years later, in 1983, Albert Holden published A Pictorial History of Montauk and despite the promising index entry “Montauk in the early 1900’s,” he includes no pictures of where people piled their turn-of-the-century trash or of the new dumping grounds built in the 1960’s. Nor does he hint at why they selected the site that later became the East Hampton Town Recycling & Disposal Center Montauk Transfer Station. In fact, I could find no reference to my beautiful town dump in any book or pamphlet written about Montauk.  Yet when I tour my visitors around Montauk, I am as likely to take them sight-seeing to The Dump as to the Lighthouse.

The Dump is bordered by a County Park Preserve, County Parkland, and private land.  Almost every time I go to the astoundingly clean recycling center to put my recyclables in the appropriate bins, I also walk or drive up the gravel road to the site of old landfill, now completely transformed.   I rarely meet another person at the end of this short road. While standing there alone, I return to my child-vision and have the sense that I am at the edge of the earth.  I am once again, explorer, pirate, settler, Queen of the Dump. I see Ford Pond Bay, Rocky Point, the town of Montauk; I can see the white buildings of Duryea’s Dock, Montauk Manor, the old Montauk Theater now a community center, the Water Tower, the Firehouse and way off in the distance on clear days I see the Camp Hero Radar Dish.  I look out over grass and clover-covered hills and valleys, bordered by forests of Pitch Pine and Oak and Laurel Trees.  Some days I might encounter dozens of small yellow butterflies, other days Osprey or Red-tailed Hawks.  On clear summer days I might see a sailboat rounding Rocky Point on its way into the Block Island Sound or small fishing boats working the waters. In the winter, the shoreline’s beige-brown edge grows more prominent against the grayer shades of winter sky and winter water.  This land, once a heap of garbage, now wild, is simply beautiful because it is where I bring my garbage and connect to the grand cycles of the earth.