Inside San Haven Sanatorium

This website is a constant reminder of how things change over time, those reminders frequently coming in the form of a photograph that shows a crumbling structure, a little less stout than when we last photographed it. Sometimes though, the reminders come in the form of a story, an email from a visitor.  In this case, we received an email from a former ten-year-old patient at San Haven Sanatorium and we’re reminded that sometimes it’s a change in our culture which leads to abandonment.

Mary found our website, and after perusing the San Haven galleries, sent us an email.

Mary wrote:

Your pictures brought back a lot of scarier memories. None of them good. I was a patient at San Haven from March 1963 to July 1963.  I was there. They thought I had TB because I reacted to the shot. 

Her email immediately got my attention and I contacted Mary with the hope that she would share more of her story.

San Haven was a tuberculosis Sanatorium near Dunseith, founded in 1909, which eventually became a home for the developmentally disabled. It has frequently been the subject of controversy, usually a dispute between those who insist no wrongdoing or neglect ever took place at San Haven and those who want to make sure it never happens again. Firsthand accounts from former patients could illuminate this conversation.

I asked Mary to tell us more and she started with…

…the day my Mom and Dad took me there. It was cold and it took three hours to drive there. I met the doctors [and thought] they talked funny. I didn’t know they were going to leave me there even though they packed my dolls and some clothes. My Mom wasn’t sure they were even going to leave me there, so they left and said they would be back to see me the next day.

I asked Mary to explain this point. What kind of shot was it she reacted to? When did she know that her Mom and Dad would be leaving her there?

It was a TB scrape . They have a instrument with several needles. They pierce the forearm and wait three days and if you react with a red spot then you have to have a chest x-ray to see if you have spots in your lungs. I have no idea why my Mom did it to us kids. Maybe she heard it on TV that there was cases of TB and went to the doctor. After us three girls reacted the whole school was tested as well as several other people. No one around here reacted so the doctor said that us three girls may have been walking together and some one spit on the sidewalk that actually had TB and we contracted it. That was one explanation. The doctor contacted the state AMA and they told him that we had to go to San Haven or Grand Forks because they were the only places that was close enough to go to. They knew that it was a possibility that I would have to stay there but we weren’t sure until we actually got there.

The situation as it was: a ten-year-old girl quarantined for tuberculosis in a massive sanatorium three hours from home.

So they took me to a room which held 3 bunk beds and two single hospital beds. I was on the 2nd floor in the women section. I was in a room with 6 other girls ranging from 9 to 17. I was 10. They put me on the top bunk.

San Haven Sanatorium

The two older girls were watching tv and smoking as were the others even the 9 yr old. They all looked at me rather strangely being as I was the only white girl. So I got up on my bunk and started to talk to my dolls. The older ones told me to shut up but I kind of ignored them. It made them mad and they got up and pulled me off the bed, threw me on the floor, put a chair over me and threatened to burn me with a cigarette. I was very quiet after that.

Mary’s reference to being the only “white girl” is just the tip of a very large iceberg of regional feelings on race and politics, partly because the hospital is located in tribal territory in a very conservative, predominantly white state, and partly because of the impact the hospital had on the local economy in neighboring Dunseith. All that aside, and beyond a government versus private industry argument which remains perpetually unsettled, there is an important legacy to the abandonment of San Haven, which we’ll get to in part two.

There was 1 bathroom for 20 women. In the bathroom there was one tub, no shower, two stools, and two sinks.

It wasn’t long and the older girls escaped, but they came back and brought head lice with them. When they brought the lice they took us upstairs to a bathroom that had a shower, stool and a sink and washed our hair with kerosene. My hair was down to my waist and when my Mom found out about our little bugs she brought her neighbor and she cut my hair real short. That was the first time I had my hair cut short.

I was moved nearly to tears as I read this, imagining a ten year old girl getting her hair cut short for the first time in this terrible place, under such awful circumstances. I’m willing to speculate that the head lice were always blamed on the girls who escaped. Parasites like head lice were a continuing problem at places like San Haven in the 1960s. At any rate, on the subject of the older girls, Mary says:

Then they moved them to a different room or they escaped again but I didn’t see them around anymore. So that left 4 of us girls in the room together and we got our own beds.

That’s only the beginning of the story of a former patient of San Haven Sanatorium — a ten-year-old girl with a questionable TB diagnosis. When I asked Mary about her misdiagnosis, she was forgiving.

They did not have the resources that we have now but I don’t blame my doctor for any of this because he knew it wasn’t TB but the state said we had to go.

In part two, daily life at San Haven, what Mary found on the third floor, and what it took to secure her release from San Haven.

Photos by Troy Larson and Terry Hinnenkamp

22 thoughts on “Inside San Haven Sanatorium

    1. Yes–big thanks to Mary! Most of us like to remember wistfully the “good old days”.
      And most of us seem to forget they weren’t always “good”…
      I think it’s up to us to carry the “good” along with us so we can offer it to the next generation…


  1. Mary, you poor thing. Your article gives me chills, as each time I have had a TB test I always test positive for it until re tested, then it comes back negative. Though I was born in 1963 this scares me to death thinking how many poor children like you’re self ended up in this most horrible place. Thank you for sharing your story, God Bless!!!!!!


  2. Thank You for posting this very haunting yet astonishing place. I love looking at all these poor towns that have gone away with the times. I look and look at the pictures and just imagine, who lived there, how and why did they leave etc> So sad. But we do know why San Haven closed.
    I do not have the power but I can bet there is much negative evergy that goes on there. These institutions were dreadful places but unfortunately necessary in those times.


    1. I believe it is owned by a local reservation now, there are no trespassing signs put up around it and its surrounded by barbed wire fences. However you can tell many people go check it out. I was just there last night, just have to be careful with all the weak spots, holes and falling ceiling! pretty cool, but bring flashlights if you go in dark. The view from the roof is pretty crazy too! I would for sure like to go back before its completely torn down!


    1. Yes it sure would.

      Geeezzz they even threw women that were in menopause in those places! Anyone that had issues and did not fit in society. Terrible and scary.

      It also makes me wonder how many poor American Indians were dumped there too.


  3. Okay I’m just going to put this out there in that we are doing an investigation/documentary of San Haven this summer and I am reaching out to anyone that has experienced the conditions within the walls of this hospital check out our intro to the documentary……


  4. This is really sad!! After reading author Betty MacDonald’s book, “The Plague & I”, where she was in Firland Sanitorium just outside of Seattle, Washington during the 1930’s. And I thought SHE had it rough! It was a luxury hotel compared to San Haven!!! Poor patients!!


  5. “So they took me to a room which held 3 bunk beds and two single hospital beds. I was on the 2nd floor in the women section. I was in a room with 6 other girls ranging from 9 to 17. I was 10. They put me on the top bunk.

    Five beds for seven girls.”

    (three bunk beds and two single bed equals eight beds for seven girls)


  6. My Grandmother, mother and her 4 brothers were in San Haven Sanatorium in the early 1930s for TB. My mother and 3 of her brothers were there for around 2 years or so. One of her brothers (around 4 years old) died there. My Grandmother was there between 6-7 years and had a lung removed. My Mother and her brothers did not see their Mother the entire time she was there My mother and some of my uncles I have talked to( or to their children) about it say they hated it and had bad lasting mental scars from it. I have pictures from there taken by my Grandfather but they have my Mother and one of her brothers and I notice you are not posting pictures of people so didn’t try submit them. Also as a mother of a developmentally disabled son and someone with Indian blood in me, this so called hospital is a horror story to me personally!


  7. Mary, I was a 2- 1/2 year old baby in 1963 and also was quarantined at San Haven. Even though I was only 2 I still remember little bits and pieces of being there. When you were there do you remember a small blonde child being there? I was there with my mom, 2 older brothers and my Uncle. My brothers were 12 and 13 at the time. If you have any memories of me or my family please email me. My name is Karol. email is


  8. Mary, I was in San Haven in 1963 when I was 2 1/2 years old. I have blonde hair and blue eyes. I was there with my 2 older brothers (age 12, 13), my mom and my uncle. Do you remember a toddler being there? I was one of the few non-natives there and very few babies. If you remember me or my family please get in touch with me.


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