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One structure has many associations

By Susan Cerny, Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday May 11, 2002

The history of garbage disposal is an interesting and rather shocking one. Our current concern for the protection of the environment was not shared by our forebears. When garbage was out of sight it was considered adequately deposed of; the land, sea and sky were believed able to absorb all the “bad things”. 

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries most of the garbage generated by Berkeley and Oakland was taken by boat and dumped into the ocean. People also burned part of their garbage in stoves, fireplaces, or outdoor incinerators. With the rapid growth of Berkeley after the 1906 earthquake and fire it became necessary to dispose of garbage in a more reliable way. 

A municipal incinerator was considered the best “modern” method of disposing of garbage, and in 1909 one was constructed by an Oakland firm. But after only one trial burn it was discovered that the plant did not operate properly and it was shut down amid some scandal.  

In 1914 a new incinerator was constructed by the San Francisco firm of Griscom-Russell Co. whose design was based on an English model. It is the building pictured here and it once included a smoke stack 150 feet high, which has been removed. The building is unusual because of its ornamental use of concrete and curved Mission Revival-style roof line. It is a distinctive industrial structure, without windows, and marks the location of the city’s northwest boundary. 

The incineration of garbage coexisted with dumping at sea and refuse not completely burned in the incinerator was dumped at the edge of the bay. In 1924 the landfill method of disposal was introduced, and in 1930 the incinerator was closed. Gradually the marsh to the west of the building was filled with garbage. And the filled land became a small municipal airstrip between 1926 and 1936, before the freeway was built.  

During the Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) built the roadbed for the Eastshore Freeway and created Aquatic Park in the process. To the west of the freeway the Berkeley Marina began taking shape as the landfill garbage-disposal method continued.  

The former Municipal Incinerator had a second use between 1936 and 1980 as a slaughterhouse for the Lewis and McDermott’s meat packing plant. The area around the incinerator was used for hay and feed storage. The use of the windowless incinerator building as a slaughterhouse in this section of Berkeley was a very discreet operation. It is now the centerpiece for a self-storage business and a city landmark.  


Susan Cerny is author of Berkeley Landmarks and writes this in conjunction with the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.