Nopeming Tuberculosis Sanatorium

Chateau Building, 1920 MS2.9-NP-r3 MNHS.org

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.

It took until 1915 before another building, the Trudeau (image), was added. The facility housed an on-site nursing program affiliated with Duluth’s hospitals. Two years later a temporary building, called Willcuts Annex (image), 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 cities were but erased, nearly 500 lives were extinguished, and more than 50,000 people were directly effected.

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.

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.

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 (image), 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 (image) with a stage—many plays would be performed there.

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

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 (see bottom-left here). 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.

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.”

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.

Hand-drawn map of the campus from Dan Turner’s collection.

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.

Photo by Dan Turner

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.

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.

Nopeming had outlived its usefulness, and that alone is a sign of its lasting impact and success: thanks in part to the work accomplished there, such facilities are no longer required. Last century’s taxpayer-funded hospitals are relics of old philosophies, largely neglected or demolished.

Now empty, the property has been a source of frustration to its modern owners who cannot decide how to repurpose the hillside sanctuary. While many plans for the future have circulated the county has kept the lawn mowed. Restoring the buildings will take a major investment. Here’s hoping good news is not far off.

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Story by Dan Turner. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Dan Turner. Or, visit Dan's website, http://substreet.org/.