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Monday, May 4, 2015

Touring the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, West Virginia

Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum is deemed one of the most haunted hospitals in America.  I was finally able to take the trip to tour her buildings and experience what so many others have over the years.  It was truly amazing.  This blog will give you her history and pictures I was able to capture from my tour.  Feel free to scroll to the pictures if history isn’t your thing. 

On March 22, 1858, Legislature passed an act authorizing the establishment of the Trans-Alleghany lunatic asylum.  After consulting with Dr. Thomas Kirkbridge, leading doctor who specialized in treating the mentally ill, and Dr. Francis Stribling, the asylum was to be located in a rural area far away from cities.  The three hired commissioners purchased 269 acres of land for $25,000.

Trans-Allegheny (aka Weston State Hospital) is a 242,000 square foot sandstone block building which started her construction at the end of 1858 by prison laborers to house psychiatric patients.  It sits on 666 (seriously they couldn’t have bought one more or less) acres of land that was designed to be a completely self-contained hospital.  They raised their own vegetables, maintained a dairy herd, were supplied coal from nearby mines for heat, and had a reservoir for water.   Even the patients’ clothing, curtains, mattresses and furniture were created in-house.  This once isolated community operated successfully for over 100 years.   

Trans-Allegheny is the largest hand-cut stone masonry building in the United States and only second largest in the World, The Kremlin being the largest.   She measures nearly 1300 feet along the facade with a center unit standing four stories high with a great cupola and clock tower.  Its original design was to house offices and personnel with a large ballroom.  The design was in the “Gothic” style with elaborate Dutch or Jacobean gables of the pre-Civil War period.  Besides the addition of dormers along the entire gable roof and replacing of the original slate roof with modern composition material, the external appearance of the building stands as it was originally constructed.

The blocks were first made out of fine blue sandstone brought in from a quarry at Mt. Clare in nearby Harrison County but the quality of the stone lessened as construction continued.  

Virginia General Assembly authorized the hospital in early 1850s as a place to house the insane.  Baltimore Architect, Richard Snowden Andrews, began construction in 1858 but building was interrupted when Civil War broke out in 1861.  By June 28, 1961, only the southern one-story wing was under roof, and walls for the connecting three-story section had been started and $98,000 had been expended.

The Virginia government demanded the return of the hospital’s unused construction funds (around $27,000) following its secession.  But the money was stolen by the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry and put toward the establishment of the Reorganized Government of Virginia. 

Construction resumed in 1862 following the admission of West Virginia as a U.S. State in 1863.  The construction continued into 1881 with skilled stonemasons brought in from Germany and Ireland.  If you look closely at the stones, you will notice a certain pattern on each one.  This pattern was a way for the workers to “sign” the stones to prove it was theirs in order to get paid.

Trans-Allegheny opened her doors in October 1864.  Her first committed patient was a female housekeeper from Ohio who suffered from “domestic troubles.”  The hospital housed epileptics, alcoholics, drug addicts and non-educable mental defectives.  Some of the known “cures” practiced included the barbaric treatments of electro shock therapy and frontal lobotomies.  The patients deemed uncontrollable were often locked in cages which you will see pictures of below.  Reports in 1949 found extremely horrid living conditions at the hospital, to be of poor sanitation, insufficient furniture, lighting, and heating. 

The hospital was only designed to house 250 patients but as fast as new buildings were completed, they were filled.  
1880 – 717 patients
1938 – 1,661 patients
1949 – 1,800 patients
1950 – 2,600 patients

It is also rumored that Charles Mason spent time there during the height of its over population.  Following “Kirkbridge Plan,” patients were housed with strangers only and discouraged from seeing anyone they knew and loved.

Her named changed from West Virginia Hospital for the Insane to Weston State Hospital in 1913.  In 1986 Governor Arch Moore announced the plans to build a new mental illness facility, due to changes in patient treatments.  William R. Sharpe Jr. hospital was built and Trans-Allegheny closed her doors for good in May 1994.

Trans-Allegheny was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1990.  That did not stop a group of at least 20 local off-duty police officers and employees from illegally playing paintball in the main tower building on the weekends of May 22 and 29, 1999.  They lied to the security guard via saying they were conducting a training exercise inside.  They ended up damaging all four floors in the incident.  Paintball paint was spattered on just about everything.  They even damaged an irreplaceable mural in the building’s auditorium.

On August 29, 2007, Trans-Allegheny was bought in auction by Joe Jordan, an asbestos demolition contractor, for 1.5 million.  He has since turned it into a tourist attraction with the money for tickets going back into the restoration of the hospital and her lands. 

Trans-Allegheny is on the top of every list for paranormal hotspots in West Virginia.  There were frequent reports of patients killing other patients and employees.  Many female workers were raped and the hospital became known for its extremely violent misdeeds.  The asylum has been featured in several televised programs such as Ghost Hunters (2008 and 2014); Travel Channel (2009); and Forgotten Planet (2011). 

One death reported was a nurse that went missing for nearly two months before her rotting body was found at the bottom of an unused staircase.  There was also a patient who went missing and who was later found hanging in the greenhouse.   

There are reports of hearing gurneys being pushed up and down the tiled hallways and screams coming from the electro shock room.  There has also been reports of voices giggling, laughing and warnings to leave the building.  The most active spots around the asylum would be the Civil War wing in which a ghost names Jacob has been spotted wondering the area. 

Another hot spot would be the fourth floor in which conversations have been recorded along with banging one of the 906 doors.  Another ghost is named Ruth and she is located around Ward 4.  It is said if you call her name she will push you from behind or open a door in your face. 

And we can’t forget Lily.  She was a patient as a little girl and is reported to hold your hand or turn the flashlights on and off as response to your questions.  She also likes to play ball and roll it back and forth.    

My Tour!!!!

Upon entering the grounds of Trans-Allegheny, I was struck by how big the building and lands were.  I couldn’t get a good picture of the complete building because of how large it truly is.  The main building is four floors but the height of the ceiling could easily make it a six.

You are first greeted by a group of workers that is dressed as nurses, doctors and orderlies from the 19th century.  I suggest you visit the website to see what tours are offered and times.  We went on a whim so didn’t really know what we wanted other than to see as much as possible.  We ended up doing the 2 hour history tour which includes; four floors of main building, walk around the grounds and first floor of medical building.  These tickets will run you $30 and it’s nice to tip your tour guide after.  Also, even during the summer months the hospital is cold so make sure to bring a light jacket.  I would also recommend a picnic lunch to enjoy under the large trees on the ground afterwards.  

Our tour guide was amazing!  Here he is.  I can’t remember his name but it started with an “E” and he really knew his history and was pretty funny as well.

The lobby has a small gift shop, bathroom and museum of the past.  Take notice of the glass above the front door upon entering.  If you hit the right time of the day, the sun will shine through the glass and create a rainbow of color throughout the lobby.  We did not get to see this but our guide said it will reach clear across the lobby and outside the other doors at the end of the hall.  That is a BIG rainbow.  It was used as a way to keep the patients calm. 

We started the tour outside.  Our guide lead us down the left side of the clock tower building to another rather large four story building which housed the tuberculosis patients.  Once a patient was discovered to have this disease, they were sent to this building.  There is a caged open area at the end of the building that would allow families to come visit their loved ones without physical contact.  At the time it was not known that tuberculosis is an airborne disease.  Now this building serves as the haunted house open to the public around Halloween.  Our guide said they made someone pee from fright within the first five minutes of being inside last year, so it is NOW a must on my “to visit list” at Halloween!

Our next stop was the Medical Center.  This is the area that the lobotomies and shock therapy was performed.  It took only seconds for the infamous lobotomist to use an ice pick tool to damage the brain and turn patients into “zombies.”  This building has not been restored and you are only limited to the first floor for touring.  This building was also where bodies of the dead were kept and you could get your hair or dental services done.  The coffin was brought over at one time to use as a prop (never used) and was never picked back up so it found a new home in the coroner’s office.   

Back outside and behind the medical building, you can see what remains of the greenhouse in the distance.  Our guide told us about a building that used to be right beside of the greenhouse but one night a patient set her bed on fire and burnt the building to the ground.  This building is not on the tour. 

Also behind the medical building you can see the cellar and the building that housed the dangerous patients.  Patients that were not fit for general population or prisoner were kept in this two story building.  Our guide told us the inside is a completely open floor plan, even the showers and bathrooms.  This allowed for easy viewing of all the patients.  The windows are reinforced with bars only inches apart which stopped any attempt to escape.  This building was closed by the fire marshal when it was discovered to have only one way in or out.  This building is not on the tour.

We reentered a side building which connects to the Clock Tour building.  A husband would bring his wife to the asylum if he had a mistress or if the wife had inherited some money as a way to rid him of her.  The wife would have to live in this building until her husband came back for her or until she died.  These women did not have any mental disease and ended up being a big help to the staff.  If you look closely at the building you can see two stone faces.  These faces were said to ward off evil spirits and another set of stone faces were on the other side of the yard so that no area was left unwatched.

We made our way back into the lobby and to the stairway leading to the other three floors.  If you put your hand on the rail and look straight up, you will see the top floor.  Our guide said there was once a patient that jumped from the top floor and lived with only a few broken bones.  It was thought that he must have pin-balled off the rails as he came down and that is what saved him from death.

The second floor of the Clock Tower Building is remodeled to show you what it would have looked like years ago.  This section would have housed the doctors that worked in the building.

The third floor was patient rooms.  Each room was painted a different color so the patients that could not read or write would be able to find the right room. 

This floor also has the gym, which was still in use by the city to hold events after the patients where moved.  You can still see Christmas garland hanging from the past parties held there.  It was also the place where movies were played from the film room on the fourth floor. 

Patients kept in this wing had to have special door knobs.  These knobs are flat which would stop patients from using the round knobs as a weapon to break arms.

Further down the hall is the cell rooms that held patients that were a danger to others.  Each of these rooms has two doors, one cell style and another heavy steel door with only a peephole to see in.  My son was closed inside by the guide and wasn't very happy about it.  Although, I thought it as lots of laughs. 

The showers were set up like we use in the gyms now.  You would go in way door at the far end, take your shower and get clean clothes at the other end.

At the end of the hall is one of the most famous rooms on the property.  This room is said to be the location of one of the worst patient murders in the buildings history.  Three patients were put in this room and one was found hanging by tied up sheets from those pipes. 

The fourth floor was where the nurses slept.  The rooms were small with cut outs for windows.  The only light in this section would have been from oil lamps and it was pretty dark and a lot spooky even in the middle of the day.

This floor also has the film room which is right above the gym on the third floor.

From this floor you can also see the clock tower better.

Our guide then took us back down to the first floor and we were left to explore the museum they have there on our own. For as much as we got to see and the history we have learned, this ended up being a wonderful day well spent.  I would highly recommend you stop by to see this place in person because pictures just do not do it justice. 

Here is the rest of my random pictures!