Northern State Hospital, 1912-2012

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!

The Cape Alava Trail

Site of the Ozette People’s village where paths were cleared between large rocks as drag ways for their dugout canoes, which can still be seen today, some thousand years later. James Swan would have landed here on his visit in 1864.

On June 18, 2012, the forecast for the rainbelt around the Ozette Loop slacked abit to predict a couple days of sunshine, and I was there.

The first cedar planks were shaped and placed by Swedish settlers beginning in the late 1890s but followed a well established trail by the Ozette people.

I wanted to retrace the steps of James Swan since reading “Swan Among the Indians” by Lucile McDonald, and “Winter Brothers” by Ivan Doig.

James G. Swan“On July 21, 1864, James Swan had lunch at the Ozette Village and then took off by foot down what is now called the Cape Alava Trail, bound for Ozette Lake, accompanied by Indians from Badda, Kiddecubbut (a Makah summer village), and Ozette. On the way they walked through West Prairie and Ahlstrom’s Prairie, both of which Swan described in the following passage (1859-1866):

“The trail commenced a short distance south of the village and runs up to the top of the hill or bluff which is rather steep and about sixty feet high. From the summit we proceeded in an easterly direction through a very thick forest half a mile and reached an open prairie which is dry and covered with fern, dwarf sallal [sic] and some red top grass, with open timber around the sides. This prairie has the appearance of being long and narrow. Its length running in the direction of the coast and about a quarter of a mile wide where we crossed it, although from the appearance of the land south I infer that it is much wider at intervals. From the prairie we pass through another belt of timber to another prairie lying in the same general direction as the first but somewhat lower and having the appearance of being wet and boggy. This was covered in its drier portions with a coarse grass and some red top and in the lower portions with water grass and thick moss which yielded moisture on the pressure of the feet.”

The second prairie passed on the trail is named after Lars Ahlstrom who arrived in 1902 and maintained a homestead here for 55 years. Many of the older cedar planks were laid by him as his access to the world was this trail to Lake Ozette.

More reading about the Ozette Prairies: “The Ozette Prairies of Olympic National Park: Their Former Indigenous Uses and Management” Final Report to Olympic National Park, Port Angeles, Washington, Winter 2009.

And “Hiking Washington’s History” by Judy Bently