In 1906 the North Dakota state legislature declared war on tuberculosis.
Though its population and density were (and still are) tiny compared to the coastal areas of the country, the disease could not be ignored, medically or politically. They voted to begin collecting statistics on TB, sack teachers with TB, reject students with TB from public schools, and to disinfect the bodies and living area of deceased TB patients. “The basics,” you could say—hardly an offensive.
But 1909 saw the founding of the North Dakota Anti-Tuberculosis Association, which passionately lobbied for the creation of a sanatorium for the treatment of infected North Dakotans. That year the state legislature set aside $10,000 for the establishment of such an institution. This was the birth of San Haven.
Building San Haven
Many other states placed their hospitals a few miles from population centers to calm public anxiety over a large group of disease carriers living nearby. Dunseith, North Dakota—laterally centric and nearer the Canadian border than any population center—was perhaps overkill. Of course, the higher altitude was also theoretically better of TB patients, and land was inexpensive in the Turtle Mountains.
Construction was delayed because of lack of funds; though the state set aside $10,000, the final cost of construction was closer to $50,000. The State Sanatorium at Dunseith (as it was called) finally opened in Fall 1912 after a state infusion of $37,500. Interestingly, the name ‘San Haven’ would not come until January 1923, when the local postmaster, John Lamont, changed the name of his post office from ‘Montair’ to ‘San Haven’, inspired by the Latin word sanitas—meaning cleanliness or health. It is the same root of ‘sanatorium’ meaning ‘the thing, or place, of cleanliness’.
When the hospital began operation, the daily rate to be treated there was just $1.50—it would be $7 just three years later. Unlike other TB campuses, San Haven allowed (by a 1913 state Act) social organizations, like the Freemasons, to build cottages on the property. The same Act also forbade the sharing of drinking cups. San Haven was operating as a satellite hospital for the North Dakota Institution for the Feeble-Minded at Grafton, what would become Grafton State School. As the hospital expanded it gained more autonomy.
In 1913 it had 12 patents, 1920—90 patients, 1922—140 patients.
In the 1950s, Grafton began sending some of its mentally handicapped patients to San Haven, triggering another large expansion. Tuberculosis patients were treated in their homes with advanced medicine, leaving empty beds in a facility that seemed increasingly obsolete and needlessly remote. By the 1960s, 1,300 mentally handicapped patients were being treated between Grafton and San Haven. This change in mission was made official in 1973, when Grafton State School officially took control of San Haven.
Pharmaceutical advancements in the 1980s began to drain the hospital. Large hospitals were socially unviable; they seemed to many more like prisons than treatment centers, stealing people away from families and communities and locking them away for exotic punishment. The new mode of caring for the handicapped was by streamlining them into the community; medication and local care usurped the expansive, extensive, expensive state-run mega-hospitals.
In 1987 the last patients at San Haven were transferred back to Grafton State School and its 400 employees dispersed. In 1989 the doors were locked. The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Tribe purchased the property and all its buildings from the state in 1992.
Since then it has been demolition by neglect.
My Visit to San Haven
There is no window unbroken, no door on its hinges. Walls have been removed, emergency slides scrapped, elevators crashed—all seemingly by the sheer will of teen angst.
Numerous attempts to burn the buildings down, one by one, have been partly successful; burn spots are in every tenth or so room and most of the wooden buildings are shells, or piles of rubble with only steel items remaining. From the ashes, ovens and mattress springs stick out of former doctor’s homes and the open-air school.
Every walkway is littered with trash, some of which has been dumped from trash bags, while others clusters of trash are more recognizable. “Oh, they threw a TV off a roof here,” or, “Is that a wheelchair in the creek? That’s an antique wheelchair in the creek.”
A cattle farmer leases most of the hospital land from the tribe, and his animals roam the property. Evidently, that includes the hospital wards, judging from the animal feces and hay on the first floors of a few buildings. I wonder, thinking back at the exposed steam tunnels that link the various buildings that are, at many points, open to the sky, whether any of the animals fall into these. Then I remember that a 17-year-old fell to his death here in October 2001 while exploring the building.
It is my wish that San Haven be demolished—and that is coming from a staunch preservationist. For this hospital to be abused in this way for another decade would be disgusting, and an insult to the memory of all those that died there.