January 1, 2018
New Year’s Day was a fog. That’s probably an accurate statement for many, but for us it was the real deal. Fog hovered low and billowy, a white shroud of fallen cloud, up one street and down the other, temperatures near freezing. We politely declined an invitation to join the Polar Bear Plunge and Island Fun Run, opting instead for coffee in bed and a sleepy schlep around the house.
The fog prevailed; the kids bickered; the sun beckoned, somewhere. A quick weather search pointed us less than an hour north, where the sun shone on an otherwise gloomy place barely hidden from public eye. Northern State Ghost Town, an old mental institution and abandoned 700-acre farm, once housed the majority of Washington State’s (actual or assumed) mentally ill after Western State Hospital’s overcrowded quarters demanded an additional facility. Operating from 1912-1976, Northern State Hospital was home to thousands of residents, who lived and worked on its grounds, and were “treated” within its wards. Known for implementing controversial procedures such as electroshock and insulin coma therapies, lobotomies, and now-obsolete psychiatric medications, Northern State was once also highly regarded for its architecture, landscape, and working farm. Designed by the famed Olmsted brothers, sons of Frederick Olmsted, landscape architect-in-chief of New York’s Central Park, the grounds reflected innovation, natural artistry, and self-sustainability.
According to the Washington Trails Association website:
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.
THIS we had to see.
From fog to sun, we arrived at Northern State Recreation Area in Sedro Woolley, and the grounds looked remarkably normal. A large picnic area sat adjacent to the parking lot, which opened up to expansive fields and a notable Frisbee golf course. A gravel trail led through the field and up toward the bluff, where the unknown lie ahead. The kids veered a few feet off the trail to crack frozen puddles and marvel at the thick and glassy pieces. We passed a tour group, several families, couples with dogs, a disc golf trio, and a frenzied runner who’d been chasing her wet dog out of the windy, picturesque Hansen Creek, over the asylum bridge and through the grassy field. I grabbed the dog’s collar, handed her over, chuckling a bit as I recalled the muddy misadventures with our own Dixie-dog, who’d passed away several months earlier.
Up ahead, we toured the farmland, peeked inside the decrepit buildings, some in complete disrepair, and imagined the hands who worked there, the paths they walked, the same rocks beneath our feet. Signs posted warned us not to enter the buildings, but missing doors and windows made viewing easy, our imaginations wandering.
Just past the farm, lay the cemetery. Tens of thousands of souls reportedly died at Northern State Hospital; over 1,500 buried within its grounds. Eerily, the 8-inch square gravestones listed only eroded numbers with initials, and lay flush with the ground, some sinking into the remarkably spongy, rolling, and rocky grass. Shockingly, mole hills with holes sprung up among the graves, and the kids joked about finding fingers, bones erupting from the soil. We paid our respects and quickly retreated.
The main asylum building was sadly not open for public visitors, nor visible from the accessible land; the road heavily barricaded and clearly marked, “NO TRESPASSING.” To date, some of the main buildings are used for Job Corps training and drug rehabilitation. We craned our necks to catch a glimpse, to no avail. The rest, it seemed, was left to us, to speculate, to wonder. So many forgotten, misunderstood lives.
Meandering back to the car, Chris spotted an unusual rock placed within a hollow log. Painted green and penned simply with the words and symbols, “New Year : ) : You Decide.”
We decided. 🙂
Happy New Year, friends! Keep searching for sun! And remember to subscribe and comment below. What did you do for New Years? Have you been to any ghost towns? We’d love to hear from you!