Revisiting Nanson: The Ghost Town in Waving Country

We visited Nanson, North Dakota, a true ghost town with zero residents in southern Rolette County, in 2012. We traveled through waving country to get there (when an occasional car or truck passed, the drivers frequently waved) and found a townsite rapidly disappearing. There were only four significant structures still standing in Nanson, and the Great Northern Railroad tracks that led to the founding of the town were long gone, too. On Easter weekend, 2017, we decided to make a return trip to Nanson on our way home from another ghost town, Omemee, North Dakota, and see if anything had changed.

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San Haven Sanatorium in the 1930s

Tuberculosis, frequently referred to as “consumption” in historical documents, was arguably the most serious endemic disease and health concern of the 19th and early 20th centuries. With no “cure” to come until 1946, those afflicted with TB were prescribed rest and fresh air as a treatment, and sanatoriums like San Haven were constructed to meet the need.

Susan (Thingvold) Sande of Kalispell, Montana contributed these photos of San Haven in the tuberculosis era. The photos were taken by her aunt, Nora Thingvold, in the 1930s.

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Nanson: A North Dakota Ghost Town

As we set out to photograph ghost towns in early May of 2012, we had Nanson in mind as our ultimate destination. We’ve known about Nanson for quite some time but somehow we just never managed to make it there — it was time.

After driving all day through an array of locations, we reached US Highway 2 and drove into Rugby for some lunch — huge double cheeseburgers at the Cornerstone Cafe (now closed). After lunch, we departed for Nanson.

As we headed north of Highway 2 we were struck by the wide open space and the brilliant blue sky. The green rolling hills brought to mind the opening sequence of ‘Little House on the Prairie.’ The trees got more sparse, and farmsteads flashed by less frequently. Sometimes it gets quiet in the car on drives like this. Conversation slows, and one of us turns down the radio in an almost involuntary reflex — unconscious appreciation for some rare silence in an increasingly noisy age. As we traveled further into the countryside, traffic diminished and Terry reminded me we’d entered waving country — when a rare truck passed, the driver lifted one hand and waved.

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Defining what exactly constitutes a “ghost town” can sometimes be tricky.  In our years of exploring North Dakota’s abandoned places, we’ve often encountered former towns where the townsite itself is empty, but there’s a farm about half a mile down the road.  Sometimes a former town like Sims, North Dakota has an active church, but nobody actually lives on the town site.  And still other times, we will hear objections from people who feel as though we’ve misrepresented their town, or somehow labeled it a ghost town because it appears on this website, in which case we clarify that this site is about ghost towns and abandoned places, like the former First National Bank and Barber Auditorium in Marmarth, North Dakota, a town with a population numbering more than a hundred.

Continue reading “20 True Ghost Towns: Population Zero”

20 True Ghost Towns: Population Zero

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.

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I found this postcard in a box at an antique store.  It’s a postcard of San Haven Sanatorium in 1940.  I was impressed that this postcard shows an overview of the grounds including the beautiful gardens and water feature which are now completely dry and overgrown.

This postcard was sent by someone named Olga, who must have been visiting a patient named Hilda, to Mrs. Harold Wendt in Columbia, Wisconsin on February 19th, 1940.  It reads:

Dear Mabel,

How are you all?  Seems like I’ve been gone a month.  We’ve seen so many people we hadn’t seen in almost 20 years.  Hilda is so much better.  Doesn’t look as though she had gone through an operation.  I’ll be home soon.  Olga

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San Haven Postcard 1940

Haunting and Abandoned San Haven Sanatorium

San Haven Sanatorium is a former tuberculosis sanatorium in the foothills of the Turtle Mountains, a few minutes north of Dunseith. Thousands of TB patients received treatment here between 1909 and the end of the TB endemic in the 1940’s. Prior to the advent of antibiotics which brought tuberculosis under control, roughly 50 percent of TB patients died from the disease. A common remedy at the time was to surgically collapse a lung. One can scarcely imagine the suffering that took place here.

San Haven Sanatorium

Years later, San Haven would become a home for the developmentally disabled,

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San Haven Sanatorium

San Haven is located just a few miles northeast of Dunseith. It was founded in 1909 as a Tuberculosis Sanatorium and later became a hospital for the developmentally disabled. Over the years, San Haven grew into a huge complex of structures complete with underground tunnels to connect the complex. It was so large, it was given it’s own zip code. At one time, San Haven held over 900 patients.

San Haven Sanatorium

The San Haven facility closed in 1989.  More reading on the facility can be found here and here.

San Haven Sanatorium

San Haven is now closed to visitors. A trespasser died a few years ago when he fell down an elevator shaft.  As noted by site visitor Mariah Masilko, the WPA Guide to 1930’s North Dakota indicates it was officially dubbed a “Sanatorium” as versus “Sanitarium”.

San Haven Sanatorium

These photos contributed by Emma Katka in 2011.

San Haven Sanatorium

See San Haven Sanatorium as it appeared in 2012.

San Haven Sanatorium

See San Haven as it appeared in the 1930’s, during the tuberculosis era.

San Haven Sanatorium

San Haven Sanatorium

San Haven Sanatorium

San Haven Sanatorium

San Haven Sanatorium

Photos by Emma Katka