Nopeming
Sanatorium
Duluth, MN

History of Nopeming

The History of Nopeming Sanatorium

On May, 22, 1912, a caravan of horse-drawn carriages carried nearly 50 very sick Duluthians from downtown to a place called Nopeming, ten miles southwest of the Zenith City in the middle of the woods. No paved roads led to the facility, though a path had been recently cleared for construction crews. The carriage passengers were carriers of pulmonary tuberculosis, and the first patients of a new hospital—one at the end of a muddy path that they knew they might not travel on again.

That’s the end of the story, you could say. At least, the part of the story already written.

Nopeming closed not only in different time, but a different era. The taxpayer-funded hospital of last century are closed relics of a dominant, now obsolete medical philosophy of big, specialized, government-run hospitals.

[For example, see the massive insane asylums built in Fergus Falls, Minnesota or Norwich, Connecticut.]

County tuberculosis sanatoria—as well as state hospitals for the insane, city homes for elderly, etc.—became common after the turn of the twentieth century. A disease or class of disorders called for a building of a certain architectural style located in a setting usually far from the central population. These criteria were usually dictated by a certain influential personality or voted on at large medical conferences. The creation of Nopeming—the first county TB hospital in Minnesota—was a combination of both.

This is where the idea of Nopeming began: at the 1908 International Conference of Tuberculosis in Chicago.

[If you’re generally interested in TB hospitals, check out Silvercrest from New Albany, Indiana and San Haven, North Dakota’s only TB hospital.]

Building Nopeming

Tuohy’s Influence

The idea for a Duluth tuberculosis (TB) hospital arrived in Duluth in 1908, carried by one prominent local doctor who attended the International Conference of Tuberculosis in Chicago, notably presided over by President Roosevelt. Sharing the spotlight with the president was Dr. Edward Trudeau, now considered the grandfather of the tuberculosis hospital movement.

The audience included Dr. Edward L. Tuohy of Duluth’s St. Mary’s hospital, who had in years prior established a major medical laboratory at his home institution and developed a reputation in the city as a major public health advocate. The conference convinced Tuohy that his city deserved a world-class sanatorium to treat its infected denizens, an idea he lobbied for when he returned to the Northland.

“SPOT LIGHT ON WHITE PLAGUE,” read the headline in August 1908 that detailed an upcoming exhibition. “The anti-tuberculosis movement is now world-wide,” wrote Tuohy and his colleagues in a statement, “and we in this city cannot afford to lose the advantage of it.” The exhibit would go on to Washington D.C. as Minnesota’s representative display.

Later that year, the Duluth Anti-Tuberculosis Committee was formed, inspired and led by Tuohy. The organization’s first mission was to convince the state legislature to authorize the construction of a hospital. In February 1909, Dr. Tuohy left St. Mary’s Hospital for the state capitol to deliver this argument on behalf of St. Louis County and the City of Duluth.

Then and Now: The Nopeming Stage

Convincing the State

Interestingly, it was originally thought that the county had the right to build such a structure out of its own volition. But when the town of Eveleth tried to build a TB hospital of its own, the effort was blocked. If Duluth wanted to accomplish its goal, it would need to get the go-ahead from the state body.

Dr. Tuohy worked with city attorney William Stevenson to author a bill. The document came in the wake of a city wide petition, inspired by an Anti-Tuberculosis Committee circular that read in part, “Last year there were 173 deaths from tuberculosis in the county…looking ahead a few years there will soon be 200 deaths,” and went on to make a case for a 100-bed hospital.

An original, minimally remodeled bathroom above the cafeteria reminds us what the whole complex once looked like.
An original, minimally remodeled bathroom above the cafeteria reminds us what the whole complex once looked like.

All of these efforts proved successful, and the state legislature agreed with Duluth about the need for a hospital. The state authorized $20,000 for the project—about enough to erect one small building, but not enough to break ground on a 100-bed hospital, the initial goal. Nonetheless, the legislative nod kicked off local fundraising. The city decided it would construct the first county sanatorium in the state, and with the state’s approval, it was simply a matter of funding.

While money was being collected, Dr. William Hart (a friend of Dr. Edward Tuohy and fellow TB activist) treated patients at the St. Louis County Courthouse and wrote pieces for the Duluth News-Tribune to energize the public to the cause. His article entitled “The Fight Against Tuberculosis” in particular detailed the ways the disease spreads between humans and animals, and offered modern tactics to limit transmission. Photographs ran with the article showing how other various institutions had been organized, educating a public that awaited its own sanatorium.

Place and Name

After several other sites were disqualified, the Sanatorium Commission arrived at a site that today rests just east of I-35 where the highway intersects with Midway Road—though no such markers existed in 1912. The doctors liked what they found there, and proclaimed it as the most ideal location for a sanatorium in the state—far superior to the site in Walker, Minnesota, where the state TB hospital was located.

After securing the property, the commission pronounced it the most ideal location for a sanatorium in the state. The site took up 80 acres adjacent to the Northern Pacific and Canadian Northern rail lines—good for cutting construction costs. The doctors even analyzed the shape of the surrounding hills and concluded that the airflow around the site was perfectly suited for TB patients.

Blast Furnace, 1940s (MS2.9DU3.1p65, MNHS.org)
Click for my article on US Steel.

Keep in mind that at this time, practically every structure was heated by burning wood, coal, or coke to create steam. The city, as an industrial boomtown, labored under a layer of soot belched from a thousand chimneys and a hundred ships. Flour mills, sawmills, and metal manufacturers lined both sides of the St. Louis River, all powered by coal—and that was before US Steel erected its giant facility at Morgan Park. [You can see the ruins of US Steel here.] Obviously, TB patients needed some insulation from the pollution typical of their time. Nopeming was far from the city’s industrial center, far from belching smokestacks.

On April 19, 1911, bidding for construction began and the curious task of naming the institution surfaced. The Sanatorium Commission recognized the possibility of patient stigmatization compelled to stay at an explicitly public TB hospital, ruling out the predictable “St. Louis County Sanatorium” or something similar. Instead, a city-wide naming contest was held.

Colleen on the roof.
Colleen on the roof.

Names were suggested by a variety of people: nurses, charity administrators, and the general public. According to the contest’s rules, names were organized into the categories “Indian, historical, English… and those connected with the history of the anti-tuberculosis movement,” according to the announcement. The English names were too common, the historical names “were mainly French and hard to pronounce,” and so the winner came from Ojibwe: “Nopeming,” meaning “out in the woods” or “in the forest.”

The name was suggested by Rev. Frank Piquette, who spent most of his life as a missionary to the Ojibwe (also called “Chippewa”) but at that time served as minister at Methodist Episcopal Church in Sawyer. “Nopeming” won not only because of the geographical appropriateness, but because the land had long been a hunting ground for the local Ojibwe bands. The word itself also struck the commission as romantic and reminiscent of the poem “The Song of Hiawatha” by Longfellow.

The First Buildings

Construction began in 1911 on the first building—the basement was set that August. While the first building was mostly financed by the initial state investment, money for the second building—designed for the treatment of infected children—came largely by donation. By 1912 the Committee raised $10,000 from the citizens of Duluth for the construction of such a facility.

The main building would be called Hart House, after the man who would be the hospital’s first superintendent. Nearby the Children’s Cottage doubled as an “open air school.” This meant that its second floor walls featured large hinged sections, allowing them to be opened to the elements during the day. At the time physicians believed that the best way for a TB patient to recover was to breathe clean, cold air.

Opening Day

On May, 22, 1912, a caravan of horse-drawn carriages moved almost 50 patients to Nopeming, where they saw their new home for the first time; at the time no paved roads or railroad tracks had been put down near the hospital.

The patients met two buildings that were not quite ready for them, but they nonetheless made do. For, while St. Louis County’s new sanatorium had plenty of fresh air that May, it did not have so many rooms as it had patients.

That first spring, many people were forced to sleep in tents as the Hart House was completed, which would be later that year.

Then and Now: The Hart House

Years of Expansion, Service, and Challenges

Early Additions: Trudeau and Willcuts Annex

Almost immediately after the first fifty patients were settled in their rooms and receiving treatment, Nopeming’s waiting list began to grow unmanageably. The county held far more TB sufferers than Nopeming had rooms—and not enough trained staff to accommodate serious expansion. In the spring of 1913, many patients were forced to sleep in tents. Everyone made do until more facilities could be furnished.

Trudeau and Wilcutts buildings, 1921, umn11038, McKenzie, reflections.mndigital.org:
Trudeau and Wilcutts buildings, 1921, umn11038, McKenzie, reflections.mndigital.org:

It took until 1915 before another building, the Trudeau, was added. The facility housed an on-site nursing program affiliated with Duluth’s hospitals. Two years later a temporary building, called Willcuts Annex, was constructed to relieve pressure on the complex until better accommodations could be funded.

Less than a year after patient fist moved into the Annex was completed, they had to be evacuated—a line of fire in the distance and clouds of smoke blowing in from Cloquet signaled a deadly emergency.

The Fire of 1918 Threatens Nopeming

Often simply referred to as “The Great Fire” by locals, an incredibly destructive forest fire devastated northern Minnesota on October 12, 1918. Entire communities were all but erased, nearly 500 lives were extinguished, and more than 50,000 people were displaced.

Thankfully, Nopeming received warning hours before the fire lines wrapped around the base of the hill it crowned. By then, all its patients and staff had been evacuated to Denfeld High School in West Duluth and the National Guard Armory east of downtown.

While the threat was extreme, Nopeming lost no buildings that day. A few patients contracted influenza at the crowded refugee centers after the fire, and a wave of the illness spread through the patient population—a minor crisis in and of itself. A temporary quarantine was set up separating the infected patients from the rest of the population. Though the quarantine was short, the county bought one of Duluth’s first compact movie projectors to ease the boredom—perhaps the only happy note—until word came that the patients could safely return to their home in the woods.

Hart House and Adjacent Buildings, 1919, umn11125, McKenzie, reflections.mndigital.org:
Hart House and Adjacent Buildings, 1919, umn11125, McKenzie, reflections.mndigital.org:

Rushing to Expand the Sanatorium

Eight years after the sanatorium opened its population had almost double—by 1922 more than 200 patients called Nopeming their home. Most of the staff lived on campus as well, though there was a shortage of rooms for them as well.

When the sanatorium was filled to capacity, the infected took rooms at Duluth’s two largest hospitals, St. Mary’s and St. Luke’s. When these big local institutions complained to the county, it responded by drawing plans to dramatically expand Nopeming.

In 1926 saw the addition of the Chateau, the first building designed as a modern hospital. This building would go through for major expansions between 1927 and 1948, and housed patients until the 1980s.

Then and Now: The Chateau

By 1930 the Nopeming campus contained 31 buildings, including a steam plant, water filtration plant, sewage treatment plant, houses for the doctors, cottages for the nurses, and several cabin-style structures around the grounds for patients to rest inside between short walks in the fresh air—a common prescription. For the staff, tennis courts; for the patients, a new cafeteria with a stage—many plays would be performed there.

Nopeming became, if not a self-sufficient community, a cohesive one.

Patient, 1948, Chateau Building.
Patient, 1948, Chateau Building.

Medical Advancements

A few very important discoveries shaped the way the world viewed tuberculosis, partly because of research done at Nopeming. Early maps show an area south of the Trudeau Building containing pens for guinea pigs. Some of the animals were infected with TB in controlled conditions, and a test was thereby devised to detect TB by analysis of excrement. In some cases, this detected the disease earlier than X-rays could.

Research also illuminated the way TB spread, and when it was most and least contagious. Based on this information, preventative treatments were devised and chemotherapy was developed to effectively destroy tuberculosis in developing cases. Such treatments, though new, had an incredible 69 percent success rate.

In the 1940s, Nopeming’s population averaged between 200 and 300 patients, many of whom rarely left their beds. Though it was the busiest time for the hospital in terms of patient demand, when World War II erupted many among the hospital’s staff were called overseas to fill medical positions. Supplies were cut as well, as surgical equipment and sterile utensils were diverted to the front lines in Western Europe and East Asia.

When the fighting had stopped, 37 patients and workers had fought in the war; no doubt, they all appreciated the quiet life on the hill that Nopeming offered when the fighting was done.

A hand drawn map found deep in the hospital, perhaps the last of its kind. Author's collection.
A hand drawn map found deep in the hospital, perhaps the last of its kind. Author’s collection.

Those returning would find that only about a dozen of the patients could make the walk to the dining hall for meals, and typically those were rather healthy individuals who were about to leave. By the 1950s, chemotherapy for TB was 91 percent effective, and rendered things like Nopeming’s circa-1940 surgical suite obsolete.

According to a 1952 review, “It is chiefly chemotherapy which has prolonged the lives of tuberculous persons so that even those who do not recover from their tuberculosis may live long enough to die of something else.”

The top floor of the Chateau was the original surgical suite. Later, hydrotherapy took place here. When Nopeming was converted to a nursing home, it was a place where residents watched movies. Portra 400 on Voigtlander Bessa.
The top floor of the Chateau was the original surgical suite. Later, hydrotherapy took place here. When Nopeming was converted to a nursing home, it was a place where residents watched movies. Portra 400 on Voigtlander Bessa.

In the 1940s, Nopeming averaged between 200 and 300 patients, many of whom rarely left their beds. Only about a dozen of the patients could make the walk to the dining hall for meals, and typically those were the individuals who were about to leave.

At this time fewer young people came to the sanatorium as patients—the new treatments were very effective against fresh tubercular infections, and children could withstand more surgery and chemical therapy. Duluth children who were treated for TB generally recovered completely in two years or less.

A postcard of the hospital in its heyday.
A postcard of the hospital in its heyday.

Fighting TB and WWII

Though it was the busiest time for the hospital in terms of patient demand, when WWII erupted, many of the hospital’s staff were called to heal soldiers overseas. Supplies were cut as well, as surgical equipment and sterile utensils were diverted to the front lines in Western Europe and East Asia.

When the fighting had stopped, 37 patients and workers had fought in the war; no doubt, they all appreciated returning to the quiet life on the hill when the fighting was done.

The chapel (left) and surgical suite (straight on) move in an out of view as fog rolls up from the St. Louis River valley.
The chapel (left) and surgical suite (straight on) move in an out of view as fog rolls up from the St. Louis River valley.

After We Beat Tuberculosis

In 1954 two big things happened at Nopeming, but only one could be seen. First, a chapel was added to the 1940 Chateau Addition. Here weekly services were held, along with the occasionally funeral. It may have even hosted weddings, though no records of such events can be found.

Second, the campus was becoming quiet. The few patients that arrived with TB were usually late cases that could not be treated, and for them Nopeming acted as a hospice. Because the incoming patients were quickly treated and discharged, or too sick to interact with others, Nopeming discontinued its patient-run hospital magazine.

More and more, the county sanatorium was becoming a nursing home, and was officially designated as such in 1971.

When I first visited the chapel, it had a projection TV, two organs, Bibles, and more. Now these are mostly ruined, except for the tapestries, which have somehow survived.
When I first visited the chapel, it had a projection TV, two organs, Bibles, and more. Now these are mostly ruined, except for the tapestries, which have somehow survived.

Fragile People in Fragile Places

The change in name from Nopeming Sanatorium to Nopeming Nursing Home (later, Nopeming Care Center) came with a $140,000 remodel. The sanatorium could serve 300 patients, but the nursing home would limit itself to 212 beds. Much of the old sanatoriums’ campus would fall in the next 15 years, eventually leaving just two buildings, the Chateau and the 1930 dining hall.

When Nopeming was affiliated with local farms, it often slaughtered its own livestock. This is the part of the hospital where food would be prepped, below the stage in the Service Building.
When Nopeming was affiliated with local farms, it often slaughtered its own livestock. This is the part of the hospital where food would be prepped, below the stage in the Service Building.

As a nursing home, Nopeming was very costly to the county, and therefore increasingly controversial. Between 1990 and 2000 the facility lost nearly $3 million. It was not aging well, either: county engineers estimated that the existing buildings would require at least $5 million to stay up to code. St. Louis County opted in 2002 to close the facility

On November 25, 2002, a caravan of buses and vans carried Nopeming’s 151 patients—100 of which suffered from with Alzheimer or severe dementia—traveled well-paved roads from their place in the woods to the Chris Jensen Center.

Part of the unremodeled hospital, above the Service Building, where employees would stay sometimes.
Part of the unremodeled hospital, above the Service Building, where employees would stay sometimes.

The Sad Life of an Abandoned Sanatorium

Nopeming had been closed three years before a Twin Cities developer, Frank Vennes Jr., bought the property from St. Louis County with the intent of turning it over to Minnesota Teen Challenge, an addiction recovery program.

Vennes proudly reported that the buildings were “built like Fort Knox”, and contractors began to reactivate the facility’s long-neglected water and heating systems. In 2007, the developer transferred the Nopeming deeds to the Fidelis Foundation, which would then donate the assets to Teen Challenge, but this would never happen. Around the same time, it surfaced that Frank Vennes Jr. was funneling his investors’ money into a Ponzi scheme.

The case that brought down Nopeming’s champion is still infamous: the Tom Petters scandal. In late 2013, Vennes joined Petters in prison, having helped scam investors out of $3.5 billion. In the midst of the trial, Teen Challenge refused the property, and all work to bring the buildings back online was stopped. Except for one nonprofit, there was a full scale retreat from the former sanatorium.

The great entrance to the Service Building shows the detail once present in the old hospital.
The great entrance to the Service Building shows the detail once present in the old hospital.

After the hospital and its investor went into lockdown in 2011, a nonprofit calling itself “The Orison Center” bought the property for $1.5 million (about $400,000 more than Vennes bought it for almost five years before). Their plan is to turn the building into a private community center of sorts, hosting special education programs, charities, and other nonprofits. As of 2015, however, Orison owes more than $26,000 in delinquent taxes, and risks losing the property in 2016 if the organization does not find backers.

As the old hospital on the hill sits empty, its future becomes darker than its past. While the hospital has been quietly shut down for a decade now, I cannot say that the people it has touched have any such closure.

Accordingly, neither will its story.