Hauntings of mental health care
Northern State Hospital opened in 1912 due to overcrowding in Washington’s Western State and Eastern State mental hospitals. It quickly became the largest mental health facility in Washington, housing at least 2,700 patients by the 1950s.
The early 20th century had broad standards for who was deemed “insane.” Although the facility surely housed some violently mentally ill patients, it is also likely that it held people struggling with conditions ranging from epilepsy to addiction or attention deficit disorder. It’s even rumored that husbands committed women for “menopausal depression.”
The facility aimed to create a therapeutic colony, complete with a lumber mill, quarry, working farm and canning facility on its campus. Patients worked on the farm and in the shops as part of an occupational therapy program, and the facility was largely self-sufficient. At one point, the dairy farm was one of the largest in the state, and the hospital produced enough canned goods to help feed other institutions. The self-contained community had a weekly newspaper and competitive baseball team.
In addition to this unique form of therapy, Northern State practiced many of the “groundbreaking” treatments of the times, including electric-shock therapy, heavy sedation, sterilization and lobotomies. Most of the treatments there are considered barbaric today, but Northern State had a reputation for being one of the better mental institutions in the country.
Despite its promise as a progressive institution, Northern State did not escape the cruel efficiencies of archaic mental health care or the stigmas projected on mental illness. Treatments included lobotomies and straightjackets — hand-sewn by the patients themselves. Many of the patients were abandoned by their families, and their bodies were not claimed after they died in the hospital, leaving their disposal up to the state. Hundreds were cremated on-site. When the furnace shut down, 204 sets of remains were found stored in tin food cans marked with patient numbers. They are now buried in a mass grave at Mount Vernon cemetery.
At least 1,500 others are buried in a small cemetery near the farm, where coffins were often filled with rocks to keep bodies from floating up in the swampy soil. Few of the graves have headstones, and the ones that do include only initials and patient numbers to protect family surnames from the shame of being associated with an asylum. In 2004, seniors from Sedro-Woolley High School installed a brick wall with an engraved plaque that now serves as a memorial for these “forgotten souls.”
Community leaders in Sedro-Woolley have organized to maintain the cemetery and identify some of the graves. At least 385 names are now listed on findagrave.com, though there is only one tombstone at the site. The organizers are working to help families seeking information about their relatives who died at Northern State, which closed in the 1970s after losing its government funding.
The grounds, which were designed by the Olmstead Brothers (whose father was famous for designing Central Park in New York City), are still praised as a “magnificent specimen of early 20th-century institutional design,” according to The Seattle Times, even in their current condition. A few of the remaining buildings are still used for job corps and drug rehabilitation, but you can visit the farm grounds, cemetery and unused structures in the Skagit County Northern Recreation Area to learn more about the unique history of Northern State Hospital.
Ghost towns near Seattle
Colonial centers have shifted in our region, leaving unnatural remnants of shelter and industry. The term “ghost towns” makes the sites sound unique and interesting, but the land has multilayered histories and its abandoned towns proliferate all around Seattle.
Like all U.S. colonial settlements, ghost towns are rooted in oppression and cover up the Indigenous communities and cultures destroyed by white colonizers.
Alder was a logging and mining town evacuated in 1942 because it would be flooded by the Nisqually River dam project, which led to the creation of Alder Lake. The town’s location became the bottom of the lake.
The water levels go down every summer, and visitors walk through the old site looking for artifacts and foundations of the town. On the northern bank of the lake, some habitable land remains; according to the 2010 Census, 227 people lived in the area that was Alder.
Selleck was a company town for Pacific States Lumber workers who were Welsh, Irish, Italian and Eastern European immigrants. Because of racism, the people of Selleck segregated out the Japanese workers into Lavender Town. Ironically, the people of the two towns together produced lumber that rebuilt Tokyo after the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake and built Mississippi levees.
Another company town, Lester, was established east of Seattle by Northern Pacific Railway in 1892, 60 years before Interstate 90. The population ranged mightily, with 1,000 at one point and 20 at another. The work changed with the times, to focus on logging more than building railroads. Lester lasted until the late 1970s, when the city of Tacoma started buying the land to protect the Green River and got into a legal battle with the remaining residents, the last of whom passed away in 2002.
Read more in the Apr. 21-27, 2021 issue.