in Downey, CA US

The southern campus of the Rancho Los Amigos Hospital is often referred to as the "Hollydale Mental Hospital" or the "Downey Insane Asylum" in contemporary times, however these misnomers paint an incorrect picture of the hospital's past use, which was much broader than just caring for the mentally ill. It was built in 1888 as a catch-all institution for the Los Angeles County Medical Center; a place to care for the handicapped, homeless, insane and elderly. The hospital was located in the former town of Hondo, which was absorbed by Downey in the 1950s. Funded by county bond money, it was simply called the County Poor Farm. Here, able-bodied residents could work on a large farm which sustained most of the hospital's dietary needs, in lieu of paying for room and board and medical care. These tenants were typically the homeless who drank too often, and just needed a few sober weeks of manual labor on the farm. Others worked on crafts such as wool clothes and rugs, which would be sold to the public. The 600 acres of property also encompassed an aviary, zoo, and rail line used for freight and passengers. Unclaimed bodies of residents who died at the poor farm were buried at a potter's field nearby, which has been relocated (but no one seems to know where, exactly) after torrential flooding washed away some of the caskets in 1914.

In 1918, the Spanish influenza epidemic hit the area, and the facility began treating all victims rather than just the indigent, and the word "Poor" was simply stricken from the name of the facility. The hospital expanded greatly in the 1920s to alleviate overcrowding conditions and rebuild flood-damaged structures, leading to the construction of the Spanish Colonial Revival buildings seen today. In 1932, the name of the institution was changed once again to Rancho Los Amigos, which translates to "Ranch of the Friends." The wide range of activities offered at the hospital were making it a legendary place to receive physical and occupational therapy; swimming, woodworking and weaving proved to help restore broken limbs and spirits. One example was that of a man with a badly crippled left arm and hand; the therapist placed a sanding block in it and directed the patient to sand furniture, which exercised the muscles and the patient also earned his own stipend to spend at the hospital store. Another patient who suffered from polio learned to paint by wielding an artist's brush between her teeth after 10 years of recovery.

After the Long Beach earthquake disaster in 1933, a large group of Rancho patients flooded the county supervisor Roger Jessup's office. They told tragic tales in hopes that he would push for funding improvements at Rancho to help the many victims. Some of these real-life stories were so traumatic that Jessup's secretary, Grace Wagner, became "hysterical" after hearing them, and actually leaped out of the office window and plummeted to her death.

During World War II, the U.S. Army turned part of the hospital grounds into Camp Morrow, and at the same time the facility operated as an emergency hospital. It was reorganized once again as a long-term care facility after the war, mostly for victims of polio. Entire wards were filled with iron lungs in the 1950s, humming and clicking away, breathing for the victims inside as they recuperated. The discovery of the Salk polio vaccine in 1955 put most of those machines in storage, however a few still operated at Ranchos for children who were given a bad batch of the vaccine for years after.

By the late 1950s, the farm, dairy, and mental health wards had closed, and most of the 600 acre property was divided and sold. Rancho continued to operate as a modern chronic-disease hospital, and later, a world-renowned rehabilitation center. All these operations were consolidated and moved to Rancho's north campus, a 62 acre hospital site that still operates today. The 70 acre south campus became something like a ghost town, with a multitude of shuttered treatment buildings surrounding a movie theater and power plant. The actual date of the closure of the south campus is uncertain, but it is known that the buildings there were used for storage by 1988.

The U.S. Marine Corps occasionally used the south campus to perform military training drills. During one of the exercises, troops opened a freezer in a former pathology building and discovered a package full of mummified body parts. The coroner's office identified 10 legs, feet and brain matter, and determined that these were amputated medical specimens, rather than the result of foul play. A L.A. Times article reports that they were simply "forgotten in a long-ago move."

Redevelopment plans for the south campus have languished for the most part, but a few buildings have been re-purposed. For more history and historical photos of the hospital, check out the book Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center 1888-1988, by Colleen Adair Fliedner.


in Port Reading, NJ US

The old McMyler Coal Unloader in Port Reading NJ (also known as "Big Mac") was once a vital asset to the operations of New York Harbor, and accomplished an amazing feat of engineering - it could turn an 72-ton rail car full of coal completely upside down, and dump the contents onto a barge. The pier and the unloader were built in 1917, and was so efficient that other unloaders at the Port Reading Terminal were dismantled or used for emergencies. Manned by a small crew of 12 people, Big Mac could unload a rail car every two and a half minutes onto barges destined for NY, CT, and MA.

The theory of operation is quite interesting. A full rail car of coal would be sent out to the start of the pier's ramp using gravity, and then pushed up the ramp towards the unloader using a "pig block" (or "Barney"), a mechanism that would catch the car underneath, between the rails. Upon reaching the unloader, the car would be vertically raised above an unloader pan where it would be turned 120 degrees, spilling the coal out onto the pan in a huge cloud of billowing dust. The pan funneled the coal into a chute which led to the waiting barge; here "trimmers" would work quickly to spread the coal evenly so the boat wouldn't list or overturn. The empty rail car would be turned again, and placed right side up onto a kickback trestle which extended out into the harbor. It resembled a roller coaster in construction; the far end of the trestle curved up into the air where gravity would slow down and stop the car. Here it would change tracks and then travel towards land using another downward sloping track. The video of the model reconstruction below can probably illustrate the process in more clarity.

A pier fire in 1951 caused the dumper to collapse into the water; the heaviest items (cradle, top and dumping pan) were salvaged and the pier was rebuilt. The remaining parts of the unloader were replaced using a similar machine that was purchased in Edgewater NJ. Operations would continue after 4 months of rebuilding.

Reading Railroad was absorbed by Conrail in 1976, but Big Mac was still in service, unloading coal for the few power plants that still used this fuel. It was finally shuttered in 1983, and hasn't moved since. The wooden kickback trestle that extends into the harbor has deteriorated greatly over the years. In April 2010, the pan and chute have actually fallen off the tower, most likely due to the stress induced by the high winds of Hurricane Irene.

Big Mac is the last of it's kind left in the New York area, and although efforts are being made to recognize it's historic significance, the cost and effort it would take to fully restore it would be very high. The unloader is currently located on private property.

I was able to learn about the details of the machinery from Jeff's very informative photostream here. Steel Man Jules has also scanned a detailed article about Big Mac in 1951, and can be viewed here.

A working model of Big Mac has been meticulously re-created by the Garden State Central Model Railroad Club:

For a real-life view of a working McMyler unloader, here's a video of one operating in Sandusky OH:


an undisclosed place in United States of America US

This derelict mausoleum is located at a nonsectarian cemetery owned and operated by the state. Earliest burials begin at about 1899, and the cemetery is still being used to this day. The crypt itself kept quite hidden in a thick cluster of trees and overgrowth in the summer; only after peering in can one discern a marble edifice covered in ivy. It seems to have been neglected for a long time, for reasons unknown. Counting the number of spaces, the tomb appears to be able to hold about 160 bodies with additional spaces reserved for urns for the cremated. Many resting places are vacant as most of the remains have been disinterred, but some bodies do remain in this forgotten burial place, only to be desecrated by thieves, vandals, and the occasional animal scavenger.


in Weston, WV US

In the early 1850s, a new hospital called the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum was authorized to be constructed by the Virginia General Assembly (before West Virginia became a separate state); a 269-acre site was chosen along the West Fork River, directly across from downtown Weston. The main building was to be based off the Kirkbride Plan, using Gothic and Tudor Revival styles designed by architect Richard Snowden Andrews. Work began in 1858 by prison laborers laying down the ground work, and they were followed by skilled stonemasons from Ireland and Germany. Construction was halted for a year due to the Civil War in 1861, and although the hospital began admitting the first patients in 1864, construction would not be complete until 1881. The hospital was officially called the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane when it first opened.

A 200-foot tall clock tower dominated the central administration area (completed in 1871), flanked by four stepped wards in a shallow echelon pattern. The wing tips were constructed as single-story wards that reached towards the back in a trident pattern, forming narrow courtyards between the structures. The exterior masonry consists primarily of blue sandstone, and at over 1,000 feet long, the asylum was reputed to be the largest hand-cut stone building in North America. The main building was designed to hold 250 patients, but the occupancy was nearly reaching this maximum a mere four years after opening. In the 1870s, additional buildings and separate rooms for African American patients were constructed. The hospital had it's own farm, dairy, waterworks, power plant, gas well and cemetery. It was officially renamed Weston State Hospital in 1913.

A notable fire that was started by a patient in 1935 destroyed six male wards and caused one of the cupolas to fall through the roof. The damaged areas were reconstructed using WPA funds, however the rest of the original hospital was reported to have poor sanitation, insufficient lighting, furniture, and heating in comparison. As with almost every state-funded mental hospital, the influx of patients steadily increased with insufficient funding to support them, and the conditions grew worse. A peak population of 2,600 patients would be living in very overcrowded rooms and hallways by the 1950s.

As the medical field progressed and treatment of mental illness shifted focus, Weston State and many other state hospitals began to slowly empty out, and by the 1980s, a very decreased number of patients were living in the outdated buildings. In 1986 Governor Arch Moore announced plans to build a new psychiatric facility and convert the old asylum grounds into a prison. When the patients and staff were moved to the new William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital in May 1994, the old hospital was simply shuttered. Adaptive reuse plans came and went, and even a few small museums were located in the first floor of the Kirkbride building in 2004, but were forced to leave due to fire code violations.

In 2007 the hospital was auctioned off by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources; the winning bidder was an asbestos demolition contractor named Joe Jordan, for the price of $1.5 million. In 2008, the facility actually reverted to it's original intended title, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, sparking some debate amongst mental health activists. The hospital is currently a tour-based attraction, focused primarily on ghost-hunting; more information can be found at


in Staunton, VA US

In 1770, the Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds was established in Willamsburg Virginia, and was the first public institution devoted to treating the mentally ill in the U.S. By 1825 a need for a second asylum was realized, and the Virginia General Assembly approved the construction of one to serve the western portion of the state. The Western Lunatic Asylum opened in 1828, designed to soothe patients and to provide an aesthetically pleasing place of recovery. The architect of the original buildings was Thomas Blackburn (a protégé of Thomas Jefferson), who worked closely with the hospital's director Dr. Francis Stribling to create this tranquil environment. Dr. Stribling was a major proponent of the moral therapy approach, that the cure to insanity requires an environment where patients lived comfortably and exercised outdoors. This collaboration resulted in terraced gardens, intricate architectural details, and most notably, spiral staircases which provided access to domed cupolas and roof walks where the majestic mountain views could be appreciated. Patient rooms had a high level of finish work, improved ventilation, and large common rooms and corridors to promote social interaction. Dr. Stribling would be the resident physician and superintendent of the hospital until his death in 1874.

The facility went through a brief name change in 1861, when it was called the Central Lunatic Asylum, however the founding of a hospital for African Americans in Petersburg VA would take on this name, and the name was changed back to the original title in 1870. In 1894 the General Assembly passed legislation which changed the name to Western State Hospital. After the Civil War, the moral therapy approach and the asylum model of care was proving to be a failure. Western State and most other asylums in America were becoming warehouses for the outcasts of society, and the architecture of the buildings (while beautiful), proved to be unsafe and more of a hinderance. More extreme methods of treatment were taking place at WSH and other hospitals, which involved restraint, seclusion, and eventually prefrontal lobotomies, seizure induction, and sterilization.

In 1905 a renowned physician named Dr. Josepf DeJarnette would become superintendent of WSH, and kept this position for 38 years, the longest tenure ever in the hospital's history. His views strongly embraced the eugenics movement, and many patients were involuntary sterilized at Western State in an attempt to improve the genetic quality of the human population. The doctor also opened and operated a private sanitarium close to the state hospital's grounds called the DeJarnette Sanitarium, named in his honor.

After World War II, electroconvulsive therapy and then psychotropic drugs were employed at WSH and other state hospitals around the world. As the patient population climbed steadily, WSH opened a second site in 1949-1950, and eventually reached a peak residency of over 3,000 patients at the two sites. When a new campus was constructed in the 1960s (commonly known as the "New Site") and the patient population began to decline rapidly, the original campus ("Old Site") began to slowly empty out. By the 1970s, the Old Site had been completely vacated, and the grounds were converted into the Staunton Correctional Center; many of the old psychiatric hospitals in the country were re-purposed in the same fashion due to the similar needs of security and administration that these campuses provided, and they had the benefit of already being state-owned properties.

The prison operated on site until 2002 when it was closed down, and the campus was eventually sold to a developer. The facility is currently being remodeled into condominiums in stages, and is called Villages at Staunton.

The Library of Virginia has extensive documentation of the hospital and records, the titles of which can be viewed online.


in Staunton, VA US

The origin of the DeJarnette Center begins with the old Western Lunatic Asylum (also located in Staunton VA). The director of the asylum from 1905 to 1943 was Dr. Joseph DeJarnette, a vocal proponent of eugenics - the belief of improving the genetic quality of the human population. The eugenics movement was becoming popular in many countries in the early 20th century and gained traction in the U.S. at many universities, and especially in the world of mental health. In the early 1920s DeJarnette lobbied passionately for Virginia to pass a compulsory sterilization law, preventing "mental defectives" from having children. He also testified against Carrie Buck in the famous eugenics case Buck vs. Bell. With funding from huge corporate philanthropies (mainly the Carnegie Institution, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Harriman railroad fortune), the U.S. would eventually sterilize over 60,000 Americans deemed "unfit," which were mainly Native Americans, African Americans, the feeble-minded, the insane, and the poor. 8,000 of those people were sterilized in Virginia. In 1938 DeJarnette lamented the progress of eugenics in the U.S., saying "The Germans are beating us at our own game," in reference to the Nazi eugenics movement. Other similar remarks earned him a less than favorable reputation in later years.

On recommendation from the doctor, the Virginia General Assembly ordered the construction of a semi-private sanitarium for people with mental afflictions, including alcoholism and drug addiction in 1932. The facility would be constructed and opened in that same year as the special pay unit of the Western State Hospital, and named after the doctor. The sterilizations that the doctor pushed for were most likely conducted at the state hospital, and not at the sanitarium. In 1938 the Peerly Building was constructed next to the original sanitarium, and the entire complex provided 171 beds. The grounds also held tennis courts and a golf course for recreational therapy. In 1946, the sanitarium separated from the state hospital, and operated independently. Dr. DeJarnette retained the position of superintendent of both WSH and the sanitarium until his retirement in 1947.

In 1972, The General Assembly's Commission on Mental Indigent and Geriatric Patients, or "Hurst" Commission, recommended that the DeJarnette Center be used to serve "the hundreds of children and youth with severe behavioral disorders." In 1975 the Commonwealth of Virginia took responsibility of the entire complex, and the focus of the hospital changed to treating children and adolescents with severe emotional disorders; patients over 21 were moved to the new campus of Western State Hospital. The campus transformed from a private enterprise to a state-managed health care system, and was also renamed The DeJarnette Center for Human Development. A new central building was constructed which connected the two sanatorium buildings together.

When the adolescent unit at Western State Hospital closed, minors were permanently transferred to the DeJarnette Center, making it one of the busiest times in the hospital's history. A concrete above-ground pool was put in around this time but only saw a short lifespan - in 1987 the stock markets crashed, leading towards an underfunded institution and poor quality of care. The outdated buildings would eventually be replaced with a newer children's hospital on the grounds of Western State Hospital (their new campus), and the old sanitarium was shuttered in 1996. The new facility did not retain DeJarnette's name, due to his now-discredited history.  The buildings were purchased by the nearby Frontier Culture Museum and their future seems uncertain; plans for a shopping mall and parking lot fell through in 2004 due to lack of tenants that could be secured.


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