Mount Trashmore

The creators of Mount Trashmore probably got a kick out of naming a trash-heap-turned-family park after a famous national landmark. But don't let the irony fool you. Mt. Trashmore is not only a recreational facility, but also an innovative waste disposal solution.

The first park of its kind on the East Coast, Mount Trashmore used to be a landfill, where trash from all over the East Coast was piled into trenches. But there were three problems with this trash disposal technique: a short life span, a high price tag and its close proximity to residential areas. In 1967, Roland E. Dorer, the director of the State Department of Health, Insect and Vector Control, proposed a solution to the growing trash problem -- convert the 50-acre dump site into a recreational park by making a mountain out of trash. Eureka!

The proposed mountain was to be 300 feet wide by 900 feet long, built from cells of sanitary landfill covered with six feet of soil. But trash is not a typical building material -- several environmental factors had to be considered, namely the odor from the landfill, groundwater contamination, methane gas (yes, trash emits this flammable gas as it decomposes), and most importantly, the stability of the garbage.

Trash and clean soil form the foundation of the mountain. Eighteen-inch square units of trash and six inches of clean soil were compacted to a density of 100 pounds per cubic foot. These trash soil sandwiches where then piled on top of each other and compacted further with bulldozers. Then the mountain was buried under six additional feet of clean soil. In 2002, it was capped with rubber to prevent water from running through the mountain.

The odor from the landfill was something the residents of Hampton, Va., had to put up with during construction. In 1967, the soil below the site was tested and it was determined that the project had little or no effect on the groundwater in that area. Chemical analysis of the surface soils are performed on a monthly basis.

A mountain full of flammable gas is not safe for anyone, so the creators of Mount Trashmore made seven locations at the ground level for decomposition gases to escape. Now the mountain has hollow poles jammed deep into it that release the gas at synchronized times. When the flip tops open, it sounds like a steam engine.

While the nearby residents were hesitant to praise the construction of Mount Trashmore, especially due to odors, flies, gases and dive-bombing sea gulls, once the park was completed in 1974, it immediately became popular. According to Sharon Godfrey of Mount Trashmore Park Operations, the park draws approximately 900,000 visitors a year.

Interstate 264 helped draw tourists to Mount Trashmore, although it is easy to pass right by it. From the road, it looks more like a large grassy knoll, nothing spectacular. But once you pull into the filled-near-capacity parking lot near Lake Trashmore (there is a freshwater and a brackish water lake), it is apparent that this is a hot spot.

There might be 20 people fishing or driving remote control boats off the piers at the freshwater lake, five or six kids feeding the big white ducks and dozens of joggers stretching their quads at the base of the mountain.

The faint odor of trash perfumes the wind that keeps visitors cool in the summer, but joggers and walkers don't seem to notice as they trek around almost two miles of trails.

Fishing is not as good as it once was, because the lake has been contaminated by runoff from the city, but you can still snag a decent-sized catfish or bass.

Climbing the 72 steps up to the top feels a little like climbing Chichen Itza or Machu Picchu. You're not quite sure when you'll reach the peak. At the wide, flat summit kids and dogs run wild chasing kites and each other.

Down the other side is the Kids Cove, a playground for the kiddies, built in 1993. Across the back parking lot is the popular Skate Park. Virginia Beach is a big skateboarding town, so this skate park was a welcome addition for the boarders who were tired of scratching up the town's handrails.

The success of Mount Trashmore as a waste solution and a recreational park has inspired another park in Virginia Beach, scheduled to be completed in 2015. Different from Mount Trashmore, City View Park might be used as a ski ramp with artificial snow. Across the country in Milwaukee, Wis., officials at the Milwaukee County Park Commission are considering a similar idea.

Maybe making a mountain out of a molehill isn't such a bad idea after all.