Nopeming
Sanatorium
Duluth, MN

My Sanitorium Squat

The Last Inpatient, A Sanatorium Squat

It early into my first year going to college in Duluth when I decided that I wanted to spend extended time in an abandoned space. Alone, with just a computer to write on and a camera to record my experience, and some basic supplies of course.

Day 1

Not ghosts. Slow-moving explorers' shadows create a ghostly effect in the 'Old Ward'--the second floor of the Service Building.
Not ghosts. Slow-moving explorers’ shadows create a ghostly effect in the ‘Old Ward’–the second floor of the Service Building.

I would skip a couple classes here, and a few early the following week, but I would learn other things, namely what it’s like to sleep in an abandoned sanatorium a few nights. There is value in that, I told myself. Looking back, I was right.

Knowing the hospital had no running water, but one working oven, I bought a big package of water bottles and a pile of cheap frozen pizzas. To round things off, a liter of Mountain Dew. Pizza and Mountain Dew—I would be set.

My main concern was that I would be extremely bored, or that the isolation would make me hypersensitive to my surroundings to the point that I would hate it. I would have to remind myself to eat, to drink and make full use of the grounds… lastly, I would make pictures, more or less constantly, and do some writing.

Bringing in my supplies was simple enough, and I was sure to hide most of them well in one of the back stairwells, one with two heavy doors—one for the hospital, one for the woods. I had been in situations before where I had to silently escape scrappers, and I would not be separated from my gear if that situation repeated itself.

Just outside the second door I buried my frozen pizzas in some of the last snow, and wondered if they would keep. I could always make a food run, I guess, to a gas station for some bread and peanut butter. Water was more essential, though, and I wanted to make sure I always had extra… I figured about four bottles per day would get me through if I didn’t exercise too much.

The previous night, I had decided that the ideal place for a camp would be in the offices near the front of the building… it was carpeted, low, and had great visibility. As I neared that area, though, I smelled something—something dead.

Sure enough, when I rounded the corner into the first office, there was a dead raccoon, one that gorged itself on rat poison and keeled over right onto the green cardboard “Trig’s Pest Control” box.

As the sun began to set on my first day, I went instead to the dining hall, the building with a big stage, and threw my sleeping pad and bag against one wall, where I hoped the sound of a truck on the road would wake me up.

I imagined that I would dream of the plays that were performed there—Christmas pageants from the 1940s, soliloquies from the 1950s, but I feel like I had barely shut my eyes before I felt the wood below me shake, and I woke up in time to hear a “BANG!” echo through the decaying hospital ward.

Day 2

The kitchen in the services building has a beautiful red and white checkered tile floor. Kodak Portra 400 in a Voigtlander Bessa.
The kitchen in the services building has a beautiful red and white checkered tile floor. Kodak Portra 400 in a Voigtlander Bessa.

Automatically, I slipped out of my backpack and stuffed it into a corner. There had to be someone else in the hospital, either trying to flush me out or angrily looking for me.

Two options came to me: I could go down, and hide in the maze of prep kitchens and delivery garages, or I could move upwards, and get onto the roof. Deciding it would be helpful to see what my assailant was driving, I moved stage right, and, as silently as possible, climbed to the second floor, above the dining room and stage.

That part of the building was originally built for employees to sleep in, where they stranded at the hospital for weather, or had no alternate lodging. Because it was primarily a staff space, it was not remodeled in the 1970s when the hospital became a nursing home. The woodwork, the hardware, the tiles—it was all in 1920s-1930s styling.

I navigated by the reflection of the pink ‘EXIT’ signs on the walls of the hallway that linked the humble rooms. I looked out the first window and traced the front of the building with my eyes. No vehicles. “They must be in back,” I thought, and I moved on. Gently stepping out onto a side roof on the backside of the building, careful to keep low so as not to cast a silhouette against the yellow bricks behind me, I crouched and looked across the parking lot. Nothing.

From my perch I watched the Chateau for what felt like half an hour, waiting for a door to open, or a light to turn on. Nothing.

Slowly, I crawled back into the old hallways above the dining room—maybe there was a temperature change and the pneumatic cylinder on a fire door released, or maybe there was some window open I hadn’t noticed in my first walk-though, and a pressure change brought an open door closed. Maybe I was walking into a trap—regardless, though, I had to make sure that I was safe before I could settle in for the night.

I quietly moved through the hallways, moved inside of rooms whenever I imagined I heard footsteps, which happened a few times because of echoing. I heard what I thought were whispers, and doors opening, but passed it off as my paranoid mind making the most of rattling windows and whistles from broken roof vents. As far as I could tell I was totally alone. At least, I could be sure there was no group of people inside looking for me, and they had not parked anywhere visible; two facts that ruled-out an immediate emergency.

Nevertheless, I decided to head back to the roof, where I caught the beginnings of a sunrise. As the sun came up and the deer came back to the front lawn, where patients wandered on sidewalks between sanatorium buildings for most of a century, I felt a yawn coming. I moved back down to the stage, pulled my sleeping bag back out, and as day broke, I slipped back into a dream world, trying not to make a list of possible rude awakenings I would experience the next few mornings.

When I finally woke up, I felt surprisingly refreshed. Surveying the hospital quickly, floor by floor and room by room, I found no evidence that anyone else had been in the hospital that night. Everything was closed, and locked.

Exploring that day I found a neat elevator room with an original brass elevator floor indicator, and decided that would be a nice place to sleep that night. I also found a new tunnel, one that used to connect the Trudeau building with the steam plant, whose ceiling doubles as a main sidewalk on the grounds. The tunnels were a little too damp and chilly for me to sleep in, I concluded.

When I got a call from one of my friends, checking in on how the first night went, I explained my paranoia. The next day, he promised me, he would drive out and rig up a makeshift electronic alarm for me. I was excited to see what he would come up with, and decided I’d sleep better knowing there would be more warning if some local kids decided to break into the hospital while I was staying there.

That evening, the elevator room was surprisingly warm, having soaked up a day of sun. Through the elevator shaft, though, I kept hearing a strange shuffle that I could not explain; when I left once to investigate, the sounds below me disappeared. “Must be a roof vent echoing off the top of the elevator car,” I decided as I gradually drifted off. “The next day,” my last thought laboriously concluded, “I will explore the grounds. I will get an alarm.” I slept soundly.

Day 3

Employee lockers near the stage, Service Building.
Employee lockers near the stage, Service Building.

I awoke again with the sunrise, a habit I never seemed able to cultivate in my life as a college student. Minutes after I woke up, I heard a car engine and was able to slink onto the edge of the roof just in time to see a white car pull back around the building and out of the property. Those days the gate was often open, and I figured that it was a neighbor checking in on the place before going to work.

I would do the same, if I lived near Nopeming.

As the sun rose, fog rolled out of the river valley and consumed the hospital, affording me some quality pictures as I moved around the roof and grounds for the first few hours that day. It was not long before my friend, an unemployed electrical engineer, phoned to say he was almost there. I met him at the gate and explained the door slamming.

He was visibly skeptical about my story, which I should have expected.

“Probably just someone there that you didn’t find,” he shrugged, “it will be interesting to see what my alarm picks up.” Smiling, he added, “Know where the P.A. system is?” We walked into the Chateau.

But once we cleared the door, I stopped. There was a new sound, not one that was there even when I left to go to the gate… a two-tone beeping.

“What the hell? That’s new.

“Sounds like an alarm to me, should we go?” asked my friend, visibly confused and ready to high-tail it back to his car.

“No, but should check it out.”

Tracking the beeping through the hospital, we found the source to be a nurse’s station on the second floor. It signaled to us that a room a few doors down had its nurse call button activated—these buttons were ways for patients to signal to the staff that they need assisting in some way. I check the room and, sure enough, the cord was pulled next to where a bed would have been, and the red light was on.

I reset it. The sound stopped.

A typical Chateau wall. Kodak Tri-X 400 in Leica M7.
A typical Chateau wall. Kodak Tri-X 400 in Leica M7.

“It wasn’t like that, I swear… I walked past here half an hour ago,” I insisted. My comrade shook his head, shrugged, and we moved on. Halfway down the hallways we heard another ‘BOOPBEEP’ from behind us. Another nurse call alarm, but this time from a different room…

“That should not be possible,” I said out loud, trying to process the events of the last five minutes.

“And yet,” my friend said, “there it is.”

Instead of resetting the alarm, we ignored it and moved to the basement where the P.A. system connects every microphone and speaker in the facility. My friend went to work, and I watched.

“Alright, that should do it,” he said to me, twisting two wires together in the back of the panel, before muttering, “let’s see,” and flipping a switch on the front of the panel. Suddenly, a short squelch blurted out of the panel, then the same “BEEPBOOP” that we heard at the nurse’s station.

“Now,” he proudly explained, pointing at the panel, “any sound in the hospital that is picked up by any microphone will be broadcast to all speakers. See, each hallway has a intercom microphone, and I just made it so all the mics go into all the speakers all the time. So, if I say something on the second floor, you can hear it down here in the basement, for example.”

Genius.

Chairs facing the stage in the old cafeteria. Fuji FP100c in Fuji GX680.
Chairs facing the stage in the old cafeteria. Fuji FP100c in Fuji GX680.

If anyone was walking around, or chatting, or even opened a door loud enough, all the speakers would activate and anyone in the hospital would hear it. This would be a perfect system to keep me apprised of all the goings-on in the sanatorium at night.

After giving my friend a tour, and playing with his makeshift broadcaster, he left and I began to set up that night’s camp, which would be in the Chapel. It had a back door, was only connected to the ward by one door that could be locked, and it had carpet. For some reason, I also thought sleeping in there would make me feel more at ease, though, as a decidedly un-religious person, I couldn’t think why.

I spent the day exploring the grounds more and finding what I thought were the foundations and front stairs of the Hart House and the outline of the Children’s Cottage. In the woods, too, I found a pile of old hospital related items… ceramic bowls and stainless steel and glass bits that I did not recognize.

When the sun was setting, after I had my fill of the tall grass and rough-looking ruins, I returned to the chapel, smiling at the sound of one of my sneezes being reflected back to me through the P.A. system, and settled into my camping spot. There, I enjoyed some pizza, and simply listened.

I had turned off the second nurse alarm, the one that had gone off when my friend and I were walking away from the nurse’s station, but it would just keep sounding. Sometimes from the same room, sometimes a different room. I decided that the panel was just old, and the beeping did not mean anything, and that I would be better off ignoring the whole thing.

So, occasionally I would hear the beeping break through the white noise of the hospital speakers, but otherwise it seemed pretty quiet.

That is, until about 11:00PM.

Looking to the chapel addition from the Chateau.
Looking to the chapel addition from the Chateau.

First I heard footsteps running, not over the speakers but in the hallway. There was no time to hide, so I just sat still and stared out the door, about 20 feet in front of me. Then, I heard the footfalls down the other side of the hallway. It was as if someone had just ran past the chapel doors, but there was no one to be seen. Over the speakers was a screech, and a popping sound—neither identifiable.

I left my pizza and sleeping bag and stuck my head out into the corridor, but there was nothing to be seen. Back in the chapel, I started to read when the same thing happened—soft-becoming-loud footsteps rapidly moving from one side of the floor, moving clearly past the door across from me, and down the hallway. There was no knock, but I was really struggling to understand what was happening.

Obviously, the hospital was locked up and, if anyone had come to play a trick on me, I would have heard them over the intercoms.

As I thought those words, the speakers cracked into life, filling Nopeming with sounds like a bizarre humming sing-along for a split second, as if the microphones were picking up a weak radio signal from an all-Polka AM station. A few seconds later, it happened again—an unintelligible voice-like tone that ascended musically. Then, the speakers clicked off.

Total silence fell across the hospital for the first time since the alarm was set up.

Getting up again, I poked my head out into the hallway, and walked into it. It was about midnight when I decided that I should sit outside the chapel for a while, so I grabbed a pillow and sat with my back against a nurse’s station about 50 feet down the hallway, facing toward the chapel, past which I last heard the footsteps.

About fifteen minutes later, I heard them again, although they moved slower this time, and seemed to come as far as 10 feet away, where they stopped. A cold breeze hit my face, and every hair on my body stood on end; it felt like I was being shocked with a current, and the feeling didn’t leave me when I stood up.

Not knowing what to do, I reached out in front of me, but I couldn’t feel anything. Immediately feeling silly I returned my hand to my pocket and went back to the chapel—just in time to hear a nurse call go off at the station I was just sitting at. I heard what sounded exactly, unmistakably, like a coffee mug being laid on the desk and the squeak of a chair.

I jumped into the chapel and barricaded the doorway by shoving a board through the handles. What I was trying to keep out, I had no idea, but I know that curiosity kept me from packing all my things right at that moment and slipping out the back.

The speakers clicked back on through the hospital with a small pop and short squelch. This time, there was only static.

Watching the windows of the chapel doors, I stayed up all night. I heard no more footsteps, pops, squelches—or anything else—outside the door or over the P.A. speakers.

Day 4

On the roof, looking toward Jay Cook Park over the ruins of the Hart House. You can see how Nopmeing ("out in the woods) got its name. Fujicolor 100 on Leica M7.
On the roof, looking toward Jay Cook Park over the ruins of the Hart House. You can see how Nopmeing (“out in the woods) got its name. Fujicolor 100 on Leica M7.

When day broke, I undid the barricade, and climbed back to the roof. I was alone, without perspective and without evidence, and I was not really prepared to collect any such evidence.

Evidence—that was not what I came for. But, a lot of things happened that were not part of my plan.

As the light warmed the air and clouds of condensation began to ascend from the trees, like the ghost of a night blowing a spiteful smoke ring around the rising sun, I found myself packing. I flung the last raw pizza into the woods, removed the patch in the audio system, and made doubly sure all the doors and windows were secure, thereby locking me out.

I came to learn Nopeming’s secrets, and in a way, that is exactly what I did. But like any other journalist that gets too immersed in their work, I learned too much. The only solution was to leave, before I became part of the story and lost all objectivity.

Years Later

Peeling paint reveals the room numbers of the past. Kodak Trix-400 on Canon T40.
Peeling paint reveals the room numbers of the past. Kodak Trix-400 on Canon T40.

Though it would be a few years before I spent the night again, I do think about the time I slept in the elevator room, and checked the hallways for scrappers, and heard the unseen coffee mug land on the table.

Once, I returned with some close friends with the intention of staying a night, but those plans, too, were cut short.

Another time I went back to take some half-hour exposures of the exterior and found myself sprinting away from dogs through the woods. That story is not part of The Nopeming Stories right now, but it exists online for those who can find it.

References »

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