Southern California’s History of Using Backyard Incinerators to Dispose of Trash – San Bernardino Sun


If you live in a home built before 1960, you may still have a charred relic of Southern California’s smog history, the backyard incinerator.

Before the days of regular garbage service, much of the garbage was burned in small concrete, cinder block, brick, or metal incinerators in suburban and rural backyards.

In large cities, many apartment buildings, businesses, schools, and factories had their own incinerators, fueled and maintained by a caretaker.

Since the earliest days of communal living, humans have struggled to manage their garbage, sewage, and discards.

Large, old cities became overwhelmed with garbage as the population grew, and they began to require residents to haul garbage a minimum distance out of town, where it could rot and stink, with fewer complaints.

Advertisement from the San Bernardino Sun Telegram, February 7, 1954, showing new reinforced concrete incinerators starting at $18.50 and up, including delivery. These units were manufactured in San Bernardino. (Case)

During the Industrial Revolution from around 1760 to 1840, garbage and waste became untenable, especially in major European cities. It was during this period that major cities began to create municipal codes to manage waste.

It seems hard to believe, but there was no direct correlation of health risks between garbage, sewage and dirty water, until the mid-1800s.

Air quality has been identified as a health issue in very ancient societies due to the immediate effects of inhaling smoke and contaminated air.

Southern California’s population began to explode in the 1880s, and continued explosive growth created complex waste disposal issues. They were handled in a haphazard and disconnected fashion until the mid-1900s.

The prefabricated garden incinerator was introduced in the late 1800s and became a simple and effective solution to the old problem of garbage disposal.

A concrete backyard incinerator, still intact in Pasadena in July 2022. (Photo courtesy of David Melford)
A concrete backyard incinerator, still intact in Pasadena in July 2022. (Photo courtesy of David Melford)

By the 1890s, Los Angeles was experiencing growing pains, and in 1896 the city’s board of health determined that its garbage collection contract was not keeping up with garbage generation. As a result, the council recommended changes to the garbage collection process and began allowing residents to burn their own garbage in home incinerators.

San Bernardino became one of the first to adopt mandatory garbage collection in 1910, when the city passed a city ordinance requiring all homes and businesses in the city to have garbage hauled by the “ordinary garbage collector”.

Cement contractor James McNair won the contract with the city to pick up the trash, and he was preparing to build a large incinerator to burn the materials. In the early 1900s, garbage contractors often paid the city for the right to pick up garbage, and they profited from recycling discarded materials. McNair’s contract required him to pay San Bernardino $100 a year.

Early garbage collection companies used open horse-drawn carts to collect trash and transport it to a designated landfill, usually on the outskirts of town.

In 1912, the city of Venice purchased a Pope-Hartford 3-ton electric garbage truck for $3,750, and it became one of the first cities in California to operate an electric garbage truck. Mechanized garbage trucks began to become popular in the 1920s.

As garbage service became more complex and expensive, cities began charging residents a collection fee. Some residents rebelled saying their home incinerators were enough to handle their trash and said they would haul their trash that couldn’t be burned to the local landfill.

Hickey-Carroll & Company of Los Angeles began selling “Peerless” incinerators around 1920 and they became one of the largest suppliers in Southern California. The company had showrooms in downtown Los Angeles for its concrete and cast iron units that started at $5 delivery.

Some Southern California cities, including San Bernardino, used private contractors to haul garbage to pig farms in rural areas, where the animals ate the garbage.

This solved some disposal problems, but caused several others, including the proliferation of rats, flies, foul odors, and disease from people who ate undercooked pork that had been fed garbage.

In 1924, San Bernardino County passed an emergency ordinance prohibiting the movement of garbage within the county, which effectively made each town responsible for managing its own material. This change has caused cities to re-evaluate processes.

Charging residents for garbage collection became routine in the 1920s, and in December 1928 the town of Redlands negotiated a new contract that would cost each family 50 cents a month for twice curbside pickup. per week. The new contract also allowed the contractor to operate a pig farm in Mentone, which would consume some of the waste. For residents on a tight budget, the trusty backyard incinerator was always an option that could eliminate monthly garbage collection fees.

By the 1940s, air pollution in the Los Angeles Basin, Orange County, and Inland Empire had become a major problem, and health officials were looking for the source of the pollution known as of “smog”.

In 1950, Los Angeles County Smog Control Director Gordon P. Larson told the Los Angeles City Council that “the backyard incinerator must go” if smog is to be reduced. State officials have joined the push to ban backyard incinerators.

Los Angeles County was the first to enact a countywide ban on backyard incinerators in October 1957. But many residents who regularly used incinerators to save money cried foul and protested the ban.

According to a report in the February 15, 1958, issue of the San Bernardino Daily Sun, laws enacted in Los Angeles County had dramatically reduced pollution.

Oil refinery fumes have been reduced from 800 tons per day to 150, industrial fumes have been reduced from 100 tons to 25 and pollution from garden incinerators has been reduced from 800 tons to almost zero by banning the use of 1.5 million county backyard burners.

The elephant in the room was of course the automobile, and it would take decades to reduce car exhaust pollution.

Municipalities and counties followed suit by banning incinerators, and the residential mainstay of garbage disposal began to disappear from backyards.

A few backyard incinerators persist today as reminders of our old regular smoky skies.

Mark Landis is a freelance writer. He can be contacted at [email protected]


Comments are closed.