Saturday, October 30, 2021

Lost and confused at Duluth landfill...

Bessie, 1962
Written By Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune/October 30, 2021

I went to the “dump” recently to get rid of some styrofoam planks we had used as insulation. We no longer need them because of global warming. Can’t prove that; taking a chance.


I used to be an old hand at going to the dump, formerly also known as the landfill and now, in the Duluth area, known as the Materials Recovery Center of the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (MRCWLSSD…got that?).


As most folks around here know, it’s that huge tract off Rice Lake Road just north of the city limits, filled, absolutely filled, with decades of Duluth’s trash history and one very large dead body, more on which later.


It might surprise someone going there for the first time that often, on weekends when everybody cleans out their garage, the vehicles line up on the feeder road 15-20 at a time, some pulling trailers full of trash. It’s like a funeral procession for your junk.


You slowly move toward a “checkpoint” where yellow-vested personnel look over your load before flagging you on to the next stop. It reminded me of “Checkpoint Charlie,” the famous site in Berlin that processed people going back and forth between West and East Berlin when they had the big wall. By the time I got to Berlin on a trip, it was being operated as a tourist trap. What was left of the Berlin wall was covered with German graffiti art.


Meanwhile, back in rural Duluth, the getting-rid-of-junk process has undergone a huge change from several years ago when you could drive unimpeded right into the middle of the landfill, throw your junk on a pile and escape as quickly as possible, holding your nose and swatting flies. It is not easy to hold your nose and swat flies at the same time.


Now, after passing through Checkpoint Garbage, you are stopped at another checkpoint where you are asked to pay a fee calculated on the amount and type of refuse you want to get rid of.


After that, you’re supposed to follow a map they hand you, without telling you it’s a map, and find your way to the appropriate site for the kind of stuff you are hauling. I foolishly didn’t look at the map and got hopelessly lost and confused, pulling up by a series of garages filled with discarded but usable stuff people leave off and other people, apparently, scavenge. I mistook one of those folks for an employee (he was seated in a lawn chair so I figured he was working), but was told in no uncertain terms that he was, in fact, not working there.


Finally, I saw a front-end loader a few hundred feet away moving refuse around, went over and added my styrofoam to the pile and endeavored to get the heck out of there — not an easy task without the map.


But first I stood and looked around at the nearby vast green field covering decades of refuse buried there before the active area was moved to where it is today. Whenever I’m there, I pay brief silent homage to the late Bessie, the Duluth Zoo’s only elephant. She’s in there somewhere.


I’ve recalled her here in the past, but for those who don’t remember her, Bessie was the lone elephant at the Duluth Zoo, now known as the Lake Superior Zoo. They built a huge house for her and there she stood for years swaying to and fro and tugging on her leg chains as visitors filed by.


But the day came — more than 40 years ago — that Bessie died, right there in the Duluth Zoo’s elephant house. What to do with a dead elephant? Well, what they did was haul her up to the landfill, as it was known then, on Rice Lake Road and gave her a proper burial.


I wrote a column about all this at the time, but I believe it’s worth repeating that I wonder, hundreds of years from now, what future archeologists digging around ancient northern Minnesota might think when they discover an elephant under the decades of detritus and carrion (they bring dead horses there, don’t they?) that we have contributed to those acres outside Duluth.


Like other strange finds that crop up in unlikely places around the globe, it could upset all theories about the range of ancient pachyderms in North America. That would be Bessie. Or maybe just her bones. 


Today’s modern Material Recovery Center is a great advance in garbage/junk disposal, of course, and so much more environmentally friendly than just letting anyone dump anything they want there and beat a hasty retreat.


But such was the way for decades in Duluth, and it wasn’t always outside of town. I can remember as a child going to the Duluth dump with my father when it was located in West Duluth, on the waterfront a few blocks west of the ore docks — good luck to the St. Louis River estuary.


Back at the current facility, I finally found my way out, meeting 15 or 20 vehicles lined up go get in, their occupants undoubtedly waiting to pay their solemn respects to Bessie. Undoubtedly indeed.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at   

If interested, click HERE for linking to an older blog post that gives more information about Bessie, the Elephant.

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