A Healing Place Out in the Woods

A History of Nopeming Sanitorium

Originally published January 2014
La Miseria by Cristóbal Rojas shows a man sitting vigil next to a female companion suffering from tuberculosis. Rojas made the painting in 1886, four years before his own death from the White Plague. Twenty years later St. Louis County would build a place called Nopeming to treat TB sufferers. (Image: Public Domain • Click to enlarge)

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.

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.

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.

At the turn of the last century, tuberculosis was a problem across the globe, as this 1907 cartoon from the Irish magazine The Leprecaun illustrates. Tuberculosis was also known as “Consumption.” (Image: Public Domain • Click to enlarge)

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.

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.

By the close of the first decade of the twentieth century, America got serious about treating TB. This poster was circulated by the Rensselaer, New York, County Tuberculosis Association. Nopeming would become the first county TB sanatorium in the state of Minnesota. (Image: Public Domain)

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.

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.

A History of Nopeming Sanitorium

37 Responses to A Healing Place Out in the Woods

  1. My dad was one of the 37 who contracted TB during the war. He had a lot of pictures especially of the nurses but I don’t know what happened to them. He lost half a lung, but it didn’t seem to restrict him. one thing I know is he and a buddy ran the radio station. Thank you again for this wonderful website.

  2. Does anyone know what happened to the patient records who were there? My Aunt Melida Karvala from Alango,Mn. was a patient there in the early 1920’s. I wood love to have a copy of her records for all of our family history. My daughter Melida is named after her. Any help would be much appreciated. What a amazing place for Northern MN. I can be reached at 218-666-2090 or 1954 Vermilion Drive, Cook, Mn. 55723. Thank you, Carol Karvala Keister.

  3. The February 2015 PBS American Experience program, “The Forgotten Plague,” on tuberculosis is an outstanding U Tube on TB and TB sanatoriums like Nopeming (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gsaBmJjIDpM&list=PLUxyHtHaofGb6gA9-btv4LIIqDjeahOPe&index=121 ).

    By the dawn of the 19th century, the deadliest killer in human history, tuberculosis, had killed one in seven of all the people who had ever lived. The disease struck America with a vengeance, ravaging communities and touching the lives of almost every family. The battle against the deadly bacteria had a profound and lasting impact on the country. It shaped medical and scientific pursuits, social habits, economic development, western expansion, and government policy. Yet both the disease and its impact are poorly understood: in the words of one writer, tuberculosis is our “forgotten plague.”

    TB was a killer in the first part of the 20th Century. My mother worked for the Christmas Seal office in Duluth in the 1930’s, helping to raise money to fight TB. I had a cousin that was placed in Nopeming with TB.

    I was 6 years old in August 1952 when I had a chest X-Ray taken at the Tri-State Fair in Superior, WI and it raised concerns that I had TB. I was isolated in a TB Sanatorium for “observation” in Hawthorne. WI (south of Superior) for 6.5 months (September 1952-March 1953) and spent most of my 1st grade there. I learned to read books there and became a voracious reader for life from that experience. I was isolated with little to do but read and no one could visit me. My room-mates were taken out and had lungs surgically removed because of TB. They coughed all over me for 6 months. In the end, doctors decided, after being exposed to TB for 6 months, that I never had TB and they sent me home in March 1953. I still to this day, at age 68, take a negative Mantox test for TB. I must have had a very strong immune system. When I share this TB story about public health efforts against TB in the Twin Ports in the 1950’s, few of my acquaintances even know what I am talking about…it is a largely forgotten plague in America.

  4. I have a picture of 6 of the Doctors that practiced at Nopeming est 1935-1940’s. Susy Harnish I think one may be your grandfather, Dr Hegberg.

  5. My husbands grandmother, Selma Holmberg was in Nopeming from 1937-1940 when she died of TB. Her daughter, Deloris about age 12 was also admitted to Nopeming in 1939-1940 then again at age 16 for a short time. Deloris died a couple of years ago but she had saved a few pictures of Staff and pictures of buildings and some of the patients she was there with. I have a picture of a nurse by the name of Miss Lindeman with a doctor. Barbara Hively would that be your grandmother?

  6. My grandmother was a patient at nopeming from 1925 to 1934. She had many operations to collapse her lungs (all but one lower lobe) but the operations always took place at St. Mary’s in Duluth. My mother at 6 and her sister at 7 were in the orphanage and conditions were deplorable. My mother was allergic to eggs yet they made her eat them over and over and she threw them up over and over. When her 7 year old sister tried to tell them she was allergic, she was sent to a cold room for 2 days alone. Mom is still living at 91 and has all her memories. My grandmother eventually died of heart failure from the numothorasic surgeries at the age of 47.

  7. Great article. Our family has a lot of history with Nopeming. My mom remembers going there with school friends, playing and sliding in the snow while their father visted someone inside. My great aunt was a patient when she had TB. We weren’t allowed to go inside so when mom took me up there as a baby we stood outside of my great aunt’s window so she could look down and see me. My grandfather, another great aunt, my mom and my dad all spent time there. We have many memories of time spent with my dad there especially. Eating lunch with him or having birthday parties in the dining room where the stage is…some of the kids playing on the stage, picnics outside. It’s so very sad to see the damage that’s been done to this beautiful building.

  8. My grandmother, Hilma Lindholm, was a nurse there from about 1939 to 1972. She eventually became a lead floor nurse before it closed as a sanatorium and changed to a nursing home. She retired as a lead floor nurse.

    My mother said that anyone who lived in their home had to be tested for TB every 3 months. Once they moved out they were fine. But Mom, to this day, will test positive for TB (if using the arm prick test).

  9. sorry i cant seem to get my image link right. but the original works and you can see it.

    if anyone knows how to fix the link please be my guest

  10. that is interesting. you mention ghost hunters were at Nopeming hospital.
    please check this photo link from the Zenith City story on the hiospital: http://reflections.mndigital.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/nemhc/id/5079/rec/14

    i noticed in the rear right there is what appears to be a disemboidied head behind the ladies.

    here is and enlargement with insert.


    cant wait to see the episode.


  11. Nopeming is a very interesting place ; with tons of history . I’m surprised no one has thought of making the grounds a history center ? It seems that Nopeming played a big role in U S History as well as Minnesota history . And not to mention , the medical history here . It would be a shame to lose , what is left of this piece of history . I have been on the grounds , but never in the buildings . The buildings seem to beckon you to come in and take a look . Wish I had . It will be interesting to see what Ghost Hunters found there , airing this Sat Jan 24 ,2015 . On the travel channel . I know some people that lived there as care takers in the last 8yrs or so . They claim that they never saw or experienced anything while living in the main building . I believe they lived there about 2 yrs or so . My Grandfather suffered from T B ; but he was treated in Colorado Springs Co . I believe in the 1950’s . It’s possible his “experimental” treatments came from Nopeming . Small world .

  12. Happy Veterans Day.
    Dad was a career Army Master sergeant / Quartermaster WWII/Korea. Retired 100% disability rating in 1950 ($202/mth- IF you keep up your medical appointments!). Jeep rolled in another country- broke both knees (my dad never had normal gait). While being treated, physicians discovered TB that decimated his pulmonary system (NEVER saw him breathing normally).
    Pic 1. Resourceful Quartermaster never stopped scavenging the countryside (tho they don’t look like zombies)
    Pic 2. Wedding day, 1955. My mother was his nurse (thank God) and this was their wedding chapel Oct 21, 1955: Nopeming Sanitarium . This veteran died in 1993 of cardiovascular collapse after raising 5 kids. I miss them both more lately. Happy Veterans day.

  13. I would love to talk to anyone who has history there! I have a personal connection there, and have plans for writing on the subject. Please contact me and I’d love to interview you and see your pictures!

  14. I worked at the property in the late 90’S as a nurse from a local agency. Nopeming was staffed with some of the most dedicated folks I ever had a privilege to work with. The residents I met there were salt of the earth folks. People that built St Louis county, they fought World wars and were laborers, house wives, school teachers, farmers and such. I met the first Army units to liberate the prisoners from the Batan death march. It was a honor to work there. I am now staying there as the caretaker for Orison Inc, who have a vision to have a charter school working with special services for children with autism and their families. The president of the board would like to have a place for adult day care for Veterans and social services for different needs in the community. It is a shame to see how much vandalism has happened from people claiming to come he to find ghosts and other crazy things. There is estimated to be $70,000 in glass breakage alone. I hope this post may dissuade people from negative endeavors and perhaps inspire others to a chance to help see this place utilized again for future generations in a positive way.

  15. Yes a private owner owns the property and is trying to turn it into a school for autistic children and a center for disabled veterans to go

  16. My grandfather was treated at Nopeming in the 1930’s and later stayed on as the groundskeeper until he retired in 1954. It’s nice to learn the history of Nopeming.

  17. dose any one know the status of the property now like if it is still owned by the county or if some one had bought it, last i heard some guy had bought it a few years back but went to jail for running some kind of bank scam or something any information would be very appreciated would love to get my hands of the property

  18. My dad was there in the late 40s. Has lots of pictures. He learned how to knit sweaters and I think he and his friend ran a radio station or short wave there. I don’t know which. Is there anybody who might know about this? Thank you Zenithcity for all that you do.

  19. I appreciate your sharing the information about Nopeming. When I was 4 years old, I was placed in Nopeming for 14 months. My oldest brother was there. He was 17, my uncle and first cousin were also there for a short time. You wouldn’t think at 4 years old you would remember much but it was such a traumatic change for me, coming from a rural farm to a facility and I had never been away from home. Also, at that time, travel was hard for my parents and they were unable to visit very often. I remember some of the other children there and the many shots I received. The nurses had to chase after me to administer them. Each week they had to put a rubber hose down my throat to pump fluids out of my stomach to test. I also remember one nurse named Sophie – I wish I knew her last name and wish now at 64 years old, that I could walk through the buildings again.

  20. Found this on my facebook about nopeming very interesting history. I’m very proud of my dad going up there to cut the TB patients hair every Saturday. His name…Archie Hackett he was a licenced barber.

  21. Great Story on Nopeming. I had an uncle whose education to become an MD was interrupted in the mid 20s. My father and mother regularly visited him from their Duluth west-end home. I have many great pictures of all of them interacting with other ambulatory residents. The uncle recovered nicely and had a great career with the Minn. Workman’s Compensation Department.

  22. That’s an awesome story about Nopeming and some cool pictures. I worked there from 1978 to 1996 and there is SO much history that unfortunately I had let slip from my memory since I left. A lot of truly wonderful people worked there and lived there. My dad was one of the Greyhound drivers that stopped there on the way to and from the Cities. It was really nice to be reminded of “the good old days”, thank you!

  23. My parents met while both were patients at Nopeming in the early ’40’s. I had a photo album which my father prepared with amusing captions and names of his friends a other patients. Unfortunately, it was lost in the flood of June 2012. I guess I wouldn’t be here but for this disease. Thank you for this.

  24. My Grandparents, Victor and Selma Carlson, ran the little srore there and on Sundays it was converted for church services. Vic was a former patient. They lived in a cottage behind the steam plant. My Mom knew Dr. Hegberg, Sue, so our families knew each other. I have many photos around the 1920’s and 1930’s.

  25. Very good and informative article. I remember as a girl that an uncle of mine (from Virginia area) stayed there when it was still a sanatorium. He, thankfully, recovered. I had no idea it had such an extensive campus at one time. Thank you.

  26. Thanks for the informative history of Nopeming. My mother and aunt grew up at Nopeming as their father, Dr. Gustav Hedberg was a doctor there for many years.

  27. Thanks for the great article. My grandmother, Dale Denning, was in Nopeming in the 40’s. I remember we would drive up to the building & she would be standing at a window waving to us. I was probably eight yrs. old and not allowed to enter the facility.

  28. Excellent, informative article! My family had a friend who was a nurse there for many years. Also, at one time the Greyhound Bus made a stop at Nopeming.

  29. Interesting idea, Jan. Just a reminder: Zenith City Online is not part of the St. Louis County Historical Society, nor is it, as one reader had thought, part of the Duluth News Tribune. (And we have absolutely nothing to do with the “Zenith City semi-Weekly”!)

  30. Thanks for such an informative article. My grandfather was a patient at Nopeming in the 60s.

    Since the facility took it’s name from an Ojibwe word and since much of the land was very critical to both the spiritual and every day needs of the tribe, I think it would be a fine location for an environmental learning center based solely on native customs and practices. The St. Louis County Historical Society has done a very meager job of honoring the Ojibwe people.

  31. Excellent article. Most Duluthians wouldn’t know the whole history of Nopeming. The pictures added were wonderful. Thanks for enlightening us.

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