Pokegama Sanitorium
Pine City, MN

“It’s like a ball pit from McDonalds, only in a redneck-themed alternate universe.”

The Approach

“You know, that’s not what I was thinking,” he glared back at me, “Also, you’re way too happy about this.”

He was wading through the thigh-deep pile of beer cans that filled the room. It was as if someone had literally backed their rust-red ’85 Chevy and, with a big snow shovel, raked the cans from their lift gate into the building. Maybe a spiteful 12-Stepper getting the last word–but I’ll get to the history…

1918. The entrance to Pokegama. (AV1980.174.66, MNHS.org)
1918. The entrance to Pokegama. (AV1980.174.66, MNHS.org)

“I’m just trying to see what’s left over, if anything. It looks completely trashed to me—especially from this angle—and I’m hoping there’s more to this place than, well, this.”

Wintertime, Circa 1930, 32229, MNHS.org
Wintertime, Circa 1930, 32229, MNHS.org

Everyone had told me the buildings were gutted and cleared out, but then not even the owner suggested he knew exactly what was left around this old tuberculosis hospital. Further in the basement I found the only remaining artifacts…

Ice skates, a bike pump, part of a hymnal—the rest of the shapes in the muck are anyone’s guess. The room is totally dark, but for a beam of yellowish-changing-to-greenish-brown light fluttering down. It starts as a point of light in the ceiling, where the roof was punctured last winter by a fallen branch, and spins into a cone of changing fog.

The elevator is stuck between floors.
The elevator is stuck between floors.

The array of colors, shapes, and lights stand on a muddy concrete floor. When the wind blows, the cone goes from gold to green and brown and back. The can pit was miles away; the light had me, and it was sobering.

That moment reminded me of why I take long walks at night and watch the lights change in abandonments; it’s meditational to see what the light chooses to be revealed, especially as hunting history is so often a game of chasing shadows.

Moss growing where the sunlight sneaks through the boarded windows.
Moss growing where the sunlight sneaks through the boarded windows.

History of Pokegama Sanatorium

In 1905, 35 acres of rural lakeside land was set aside for a tuberculosis hospital near Pine City, Minnesota—a half a day’s journey north from St. Paul, where a prominent doctor held office. That doctor was Longstreet Taylor, and he specialized in tuberculosis patients. At the time there was at least one City Hospital in the area that dealt with TB patients, but Taylor believed them too cramped, polluted, and urban to do any good.

Part of his strategy for controlling the highly contagious disease was isolation, clean air, and an emphasis on changing poor health habits that affected the respiratory system.

So, in keeping with these beliefs—and to keep close watch on his patients—on those 35 acres he limited his sanatorium to 36 patients.

The hospital took its name from the lake it was built beside, and originally consisted of a larger administration building and a series of smaller cottages built for one or two patients. Housing afforded ample privacy, while a Sanatorium Farm afforded high-quality food.

Silvercrest’s Crest - (C)SUBSTREET
Silvercest Sanatorium, Indiana

Readers of my TB hospital histories often ask whether I am afraid that I could contract tuberculosis as a result of my visits. In fact, even when there were living, breathing affected people I would have been allowed to mingle with the patients. In the words of Dr. Taylor, while “it is not advisable to bring small children as they are most susceptible to infection, to adults, the danger of infection is negligible.

tb-poster
TB Poster

Unlike public sanatoria, Pokegama did not cater to local patients exclusively, setting it apart from hospitals like Duluth’s Nopeming (article coming soon) or New Albany’s Silvercrest. Many patients came from the Twin Cities to live in the cottages for about $30 per week. When the sanatorium was advertised, however, it did specify that, “Hopeless, far-advanced cased are not desired.

Anti-TB advertising: Source: Journal of Outdoor Life, p.310
Anti-TB advertising: Source: Journal of Outdoor Life, p.310

As a TB treatment center, the hospital shut down in 1943, after which a Catholic bought the property, turning the Administration building into a retirement home and the circa-1918 Receiving Hospital into a school for aspiring Priests. The insides still reflects this last use, with a small chapel, chalkboards and parts of Bibles. Eventually, though, even the Fathers left the lakeside retreat.

For a short time after, parts of the 1918 section were used by a chemical treatment company, although it is unclear for what purpose. It was called “Pine Manor,” following the naming conventions of the halfway house network around the Twin Cities, but there are no signs the buildings were lived in; only stacks of old office furniture and a few old VHS 12-Step tapes.

What is clear, though, is that Pokegama Sanatorium finally ran out of uses in 1986. It still stands.