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Northern State Recreation Area Loop Ghost Town

if you want to feel a little spooked while getting some exercise, just head to Sedro-Woolley and hike the Northern State Recreation Area Loop. The trail takes you to an abandoned mental hospital… and while you can’t go inside, it just might put you in a spooky state of mind.

To reach the trail, just cruise up Highway 20 and turn north Helmick Road. Turn left into Northern State Recreation Area parking lot.

Once the largest facility for mentally ill people in Washington State, Northern State Mental Hospital was a town unto itself. The hospital was established in 1909 after the over-crowded conditions at Western State Hospital came under public criticism. Northern State’s grand opening happened in 1912.

The Olmstead Brothers, whose father was famous for having designed New York City’s Central Park, designed the landscape at Northern State. Renowned architects Saunders and Lawton designed the hospital’s buildings. They worked in close collaboration with Northern State’s farm superintendent to create a self-sustaining and therapeutic colony for the mentally ill. The hospital site included patient and staff housing, a water reservoir, sewage system, lumber mill, quarry, steam plant, greenhouse, canning facilities, gymnasium, library, laundry, dining room, bakery, dairy, and 700-acre farm for growing vegetables and raising livestock. A cemetery was also included in the site plan.

At one time in the 1950s about 2,700 patients lived at Northern State. This was the full capacity of the hospital according to the superintendent at the time, but he was still being pressured to take on more patients. The public perception of mental hospitals began to change in the 1970s, and Northern State Mental Hospital closed its doors in 1976 after the State Legislature cut off funding. Some of the buildings, including the farm’s housing ward, have since been torn down.

The active buildings at Northern State are off-limits to members of the public, but much of the former property is now a part of Northern State Recreation Area. It is located just north of the Skagit River near the town of Sedro-Woolley. The recreation area has an extensive trail system that will take you through wide open pastures, along forested lanes, and past the still standing barns, milking shed, cannery, and other structures used during the hospital’s self-sustaining past. You can also visit the old cemetery, which is the resting place of at least 1,500 people.

It was amazing what kind of “illness” could land someone in Northern State. Men committed their post-menopausal wives when the women became “too excitable.” At least one man was committed because he had “religious mania.” There were other cases of orphaned children being committed for what today would likely been diagnosed as Attention Deficit Disorder. Many more were committed due to “imbecility,” or other learning disabilities. Perhaps a third of the inmates had conditions like senile dementia, manic depression, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.

Northern State Hospital treated their patients with occupational therapy, hoping that physical labor, like farming and felling timber, would aid in patient recovery. Many patients learned a trade for the day when they would be released. But the doctors also used many other techniques popular in the twentieth century to help cure mental illness, including electroshock therapy and lobotomy. Many patients were also sterilized, following the belief in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that it was for their own good, as well as society’s.

The hospital closed in 1973, and Washington converted part of the complex into a Job Corp facility and drug treatment center. Although they use some of the buildings, some have been torn down, and others are empty and deteriorating. The graveyard became overgrown, but in 2006 local citizens erected a monument to the forgotten dead there. While the dead may be at peace in the graveyard, some people believe the unquiet dead still walk the crumbling halls of the hospital.

Several people have reported seeing a little girl walking around the old buildings, sometimes playing with a red ball. A man who never seems to find her follows. Other people claim to have seen a nurse in a certain building, pushing a man in a wheelchair.

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