Inside San Haven Sanatorium, part two

In part one, Mary, a former patient at San Haven Sanatorium, detailed her arrival at San Haven and the circumstances that led to her spending five months in the facility in 1963. Eventually this ten-year-old from Carrington settled into her time at this massive hospital and learned how to keep herself safe.

We never wandered the halls unless we told the nurses where we were going so I did not associate with too many more of the residents. We knew there were men on the other hallway because we were never allowed on that end. We had to tell them when we wanted to go to the bathroom because we shared the bathroom with all the ladies on end of the hall. As I told you before, no shower, just a bathtub, two stools and two sinks. Sometimes when I went to the bathroom I would see blood in the sinks.

I learned many things there such as taking my own temp, and my own pulse. We had to do this every day and sometimes twice a day. Once a month they would stick a tube down my throat and bring up juices from my stomach to test for a live bug. They always came back negative. I never had TB.

The third floor was for the severely mentally handicapped and for us to do our crafts. I do remember going up to the third floor and peeking in the window and seeing several old people in cribs with just diapers on, crying and screaming. The door was locked so we couldn’t go in.  We were not allowed on the fourth floor except to wash our hair in the small bathroom and a nurse was with us at all times.

We were able to go to the roof by elevator and get some fresh air and sunshine and every once in a while the girls would lock me out and I would have to wait until the nurses would come looking for me or one of the girls felt sorry for me and let me in. On top of the roof was a room that the elevator was in and a door to the outside so I got wise after a while and never left the building so I was close to the elevator. That was the only sunshine we got was when we went to the top.

San Haven Sanatorium

My friends and family came to see me and I could only see them when I opened my window with bars. Adults were allowed in the building but children weren’t. Which doesn’t make sense because the adults didn’t wear masks or gowns, so they could have taken this to the kids anyway, but that’s how they did it back then.

I asked Mary about the bars on the windows and the visiting restrictions:

We weren’t really allowed outside our rooms most of the time. The nurses would always tell us to get back in our room. We were not locked in our rooms and our doors were open during the day but they preferred us not to be outside our rooms except to go to the bathroom. When I think on it , it was sort of like a prison, but as a kid and having a large room and a TV I didn’t think any thing about it. There were bars on the windows because as I said the girls would keep escaping, but I think they just walked out the front door when all the visitors left. Not sure and did not ask questions. The last month I was there there was an older white women that was more like a grandmother. She was very kind but we could only talk across the way from each other. I never went into her room and she never came in ours.

In one portion of an email, Mary compares her memories of San Haven with our photos, like the garden and fountain that once graced the grounds:

I don’t remember any gardens or streams from the roof, but you have to remember I never got outside. I also don’t remember any other buildings such as the Children’s wing. That wasn’t there when I was.

In the seventies and eighties, things had started to spiral down at San Haven, and Mary says the decline was already apparent when she was there in 1963.

It was very scary place to be then, I can imagine what it was later. The place should have been condemned back then.

In the end, Mary’s parents secured her release.

My doctor and Mom made them get me out of there.  It took 4 months and when Mom threatened lawyers that’s when they released me.  There was no live bug to work with so they had to let me go.

When I got out in July I had to take 21 pills a day for 3 years so I wouldn’t get TB. I am still a carrier and always will be as my sisters are also carriers. 

The legacy of the closure of San Haven (and hundreds of other facilities like it around the nation) is that we decided as a society that shuttering away other people for whatever purpose is very, very rarely necessary in a modern medical society.  During the time Mary was a patient, this facility hosted both contagious TB patients and developmentally disabled adults, and patients with an array of other afflictions known by other names today.  Banishing them to a place like San Haven, so understaffed and administratively mismanaged… it’s just not the way we treat the vulnerable in our country today.  It’s hard to argue with a former patient.

Not a pretty picture but then in my eyes not a pretty place. I don’t have good feelings about that place at all.

There were surely patients at San Haven who had a delightful time, and plenty of people who flatly deny there was anything at all wrong with facilities like San Haven despite plenty of documentation to the contrary, a topic we’ve addressed before, but in the end, facilities like San Haven were closed for a reason.  There are those who disagree with it and who lost their jobs because of it and that is unfortunate. However, a critical attitude toward human warehouses like San Haven shouldn’t be seen as a swipe at the staff.  To the contrary, we have the utmost respect for those who excel at exceedingly difficult jobs like those San Haven offered.  It’s executive and administrative decisions that led to hospital staff pushed far beyond their capabilities.

We’re very grateful to Mary for sending her story in.  In the end, the closure of San Haven simply means young girls like Mary will no longer have to endure what she went through, and that is a good thing.

Photos by Troy Larson and Terry Hinnenkamp

13 thoughts on “Inside San Haven Sanatorium, part two

  1. How very sad but it doesn’t surprise me that this occurred. From what I remember about growing up in N.D. I can’t help but think there but for the grace of God go I.

    The mentality of the powers-that-be in those days was truly amazing.


  2. I would not be at all surprised if Mary had any good feeling about the health care system given this experience. I know I would carry a level is distrust for a lifetime. I tried to put myself in her shoes, which in the end I could not do as I have never had a horrific experience such as this, so could only imagine the fear and uncertainty which surely permeated her everyday life. I know I would have been in a constant state of anxiety. Makes me wonder about humans. About how we treat each other. She was a brave kid who grew to be a brave woman for most definitely it took an act of courage to retell this story. Godspeed.


  3. Very interesting reading about this place. My Grandmother also had spent time there. I only remember once walking down the hall way and being outside in the front. Don’t remember much, it was in the late 60’s or early 70’s. I drove by the place last fall and it is in bad shape. It would be very interesting to just be able to enter the main facility parking lot and just view it. My mother has told me some stories about the place


  4. my older brother, my younger sister and i grew up in an orphanage. we had food, clothing and shelter. that was it. no love, kindness ,,if you wanted to ask a question about something you wanted to know about, 9 x’s out of 10, you were ignored. if we were not in the kitchen preparing breakfast, lunch or supper, you were either in the laundry room ( i remember there were io -12 ironing boards sssset up with a girl at each boarg, ironing what seemed like mountains of clothes) or in 1 of the monstrous domitories taking care of the younger kids. no free time between our chores, school/ homework, church etc. we really had no free time. and in the summer, there was yard work. there was fun on saturdays after we put paste wax on the floor, the fun would began when 2 or 3 girls would sit on one end of quilts and the other girls would drag us back and forth across the floor until it shone like glass. we remember we had to sneak in some fun time. i do appreciate having the basics tho. we lost our mother in 1946. she was only 42 .our father just disappeared out of our lives.


  5. My maternal grandmother had TB (I now test + because of that exposure); she was in / out of San Haven MANY times 1930’s-1960’s when she died …….. reading this gives me insight into her behavior.


  6. Last sun me my husband and son got permission to enter sanhaven. My son had his drone took aerial photos of whole place sad scarry place


    1. Some places are just bad places. No amount of anything will ever make them other than what they are. Maybe this is one of those places that, instead of waiting for Nature to run her course, would be better served by hurrying that process along and bulldozing down the place, removing the debris and letting Nature heal this wound.


    2. I was wondering who did you get permission from to enter? I have heard so many things about this place and I would love to see what it looks like from the inside. I am very curious about what it looks like inside. If I am not allowed in the buildings that is fine but just to see the grounds would be just as awesome. Thanks


  7. Mary was 10 at the time she was sent San Haven and that would make her 62 today. Is she still alive and if so would I be able to contact her. I had family in San Haven was I was very young. Thank you


  8. Mixed fascination and horror. My family is purchasing a home in Dunseith and we are preparing for the move as I speak. I can’t help but question why this building still stands, I have driven by it many many times wondering about its history, knowing full well by the feel of it that it was surely gruesome for many, a place of abuse. I fully intend to start asking questions and in the near future opening conversation with the necessary folks towards demolishing the site and allowing the grounds to heal and rest both physically and spiritually. The turtle mountains are a sacred place.


  9. I lived there with my parents. They both worked at the San and they had families that lived in buildings there. I and my sister would run around and play it was such a beautiful place to be almost like you lived in a different country how beautiful it was. We would run the grounds at the darkest of night and the only things scary were the millions of snakes. There were so many nice people and residents there that never gave a second thought of spooky or scared. If you lived there in all it’s beautiful you would totally understand how I feel. In the later years yes ppl destroyed all the buildings and there were two accidents there. Like I said in the early days it was magical.


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