September 15th, a Saturday, but it’s a sunny day for the drive north on Route 9. Turning right at Sedro-Woolley, the Northern State Hospital site (now called “The North Cascades Gateway Center”), is four miles northeast of town. By the time I arrive around noon, the off-site parking is looking full with a long line of history buffs waiting for the white shuttle van that could carry only 10 of them at a time up the hill to the start of the guided tours.
Striking out across the parking out, I decided to hoof-it across the large expanse of grass that holds the historic structures at a graceful, yet mysterious distance.
The hospital, intended for what was referred to at the time as the “harmless insane,” is noted for its abundant campus acreage and has been long recognized as one one of the most beautiful hospital sites in the country. It was a major creative coup, as Noel V. Bourasaw writes in his, “Skagit River Journal,” was to commission the Olmstead sons (of the famous designer of Central Park in New York City), to plan the initial grounds around the hospital buildings.
Some 200 patients were transfered from the overcrowded facility in Steilacoom by 1913. For many years it was referred to it as the “bughouse,” even as the community grew to depend on the significant payroll generated by the institution.
The hospital ended operations in 1973, and eventually the stewardship of the site was taken up by the Washington State Department of General Administration and Skagit County. Once considered agricultural area the site is now the Northern State Recreation Area, home to many organizations, but the largest user of the historic structures is the Cascades Job Corps Center. (An extensive accounting of the history and pleas for the future of the site can be found online at The Cultural Landscape Foundation.)
My self-guided tour across the grounds ended at the Assembly Hall where I arrived just in time for the 12:30 public tour led by Job Corps students Margaret and Kelsey — enjoy!