Finding Northern State Hospital
Date of Adventure: November 9, 2014
Years ago while doing in-stream salmon spawning studies, Julie had first encountered Northern State Hospital. She had no idea what the facility had been, but was struck by the beauty and stillness of the site. The two of us first visited the site together in 2012, and returned in 2014.
While the hospital and farm together cover 1,200 acres you can't see it from highway 20. There are no road signs either, so you have to know where you are going. We learned the trick is to turn left on Helmick Road. After that its easy. The Northern State Recreation Area comes up on your left in less than half a mile. It's a wide open field with a large parking lot so it's easy to see.
On our first visit to the site, we almost gave up after fruitless searching. A quick internet search gave us directions to the main entrance and gateway center. We thought this sounded like an inviting visitor center, but it is actually a US Jobs Corps facility. Parts of the hospital are also used as a drug and alcohol treatment center as well, so the main campus is strictly off-limits.
The trailhead is clearly marked and the wide open spaces make it easy to see where your heading. So easy in fact, we forgot to take a picture.
The Trail & Destination
The trails are mostly wide, flat old gravel roads. The site was originally designed by the Olmstead Brothers, made famous by their father, who designed well-know places such as Central Park in New York City. While much of the original design has succumbed to age, the original vision is still apparent in the pleasant landscape.
Walking from the car, we went across the field. The only people we saw were playing disc golf, as their is a course in the recreation area. Then we headed up the short hill to barn and milking complex.
There is still so much here, and so few people, it amazes us. Most places take a lot of imagination to visualize the people and structures that inhabited them. At Northern State, you almost expect to turn a corner and see cows being led into the barn for milking.
There is so much to see in this one concentrated area, we could spend a whole day.
We have looked for maps that indicate the purpose of each barn, but have not had any luck. We did find a wonderful book, "Under the Red Roof, One Hundred Years at Northern State," by local author M. J. McGoffin.
Through her research we have been able to understand this place much better. In it we learned there had been a special farm ward (since torn down) where patients who worked on the farm lived.
Since the hospital had so many patients, with so many different illnesses, it didn't seem strange to have patients working on farm. During the early part of the 20th century it was common for women to be hospitalized for everything from post-partum depression to being lesbian. The idea of having meaningful work to do while being confined seemed soothing.
After exploring the big barns, we walked back down the hill and along the gravel road to the cannery.
For most of the time the hospital operated, which was 1912 to 1973, they were a completely closed system. They produced all of their own food and made all of their clothing.
At a time when many closed hospitals were hiding dark secrets of neglect and abuse, it seems Northern State was known for being humane.
The hospital was closed down in the 1960s by legislative action from Washington's capitol in Olympia. The politicians believed it was abuse for patients to produce their own food. McGoffin writes that many patients were confused and upset when they could no longer work on the farm. Seeing the apples rotting must have been heartbreaking.
In just the two years since we had visited, many more buildings were falling down. While we didn't realize it until after our visit, you are not supposed to enter any of the historic structures. In most places common sense dictates this, simply by looking inside a door.
After visiting the cannery area, we walked north along a small footpath above Hansen Creek. While there is a very large barbed-wire-topped fence around the hospital still in use, the creek is the natural barrier. We followed the path up and around to the northernmost part of the area, where the well house stands.
The hospital has been exploited by so-called ghost hunters and others wishing to capitalize on the darker side of mental health institutions. But visiting the site doesn't feel creepy at all to us. With one exception. The well house. We are not superstitious, but when we get close to this building it makes us feel a cold chill up the spine. So after a quick look, we beat it back the way we came.
Even though the other buildings are relatively close, the creek and related wetlands form an impassable barrier. So we walked back along the road and back out to the main part of the farm. There we walked past the slaughter house. We read children growing up in the area were allowed to roam the farm, and this building gave them the creeps. That makes sense as it was the place animals were shot on their way to becoming dinner.
Next we visited another barn, standing alone on the highest point. That's not saying much as most of the land is level. It doesn't quite look like animals lived inside, but was perhaps straw storage.
Last we strolled across the pasture and made a final visit to the cemetery. Many people died of old age at the hospital, but many did not. While Northern State was known to be humane, it was also still hospital for people with severe illnesses. And in the early part of the 20th century some of the "cutting edge" treatments would later prove barbaric.
There are approximately 1,500 people buried in the cemetery. These are the individuals who did not have family. We read that when the hospital morgue was destroyed, the cremated remains of another 200 people were found stored in the basement.
The first headstone, at the tree line, is a standard, upright grave marker. The girl was born the same day as Julie. Did she suffer from severe mental illness, or did she simply not fit society's definition of normal?
The second stone was a small flat rectangle on the ground, with initials. The third included a letter A. The next was numbered 1. From then on, each small stone is just a number. There are no dates, but it seems that by the fifth burial, they must have known there would be a long list into the future.
When the hospital closed, many patients were sent out on their own. Some ended up living on the street, and some ended up in assisted living centers. Was this institution better or worse than that fate? We don't have the answers. But we do know that Northern State Hospital is beautiful place to reflect on the big questions of life.
Thank you for reading about our adventure finding Northern State Hospital. If you choose your own adventure to this spot, we hope you will drop us a line.