The following article was published in the Harrisburg Patriot
News on Sunday, June 27, 2010. My thanks to David Wenner for the article. Click the following
link to go to the newspaper website:
Former patient at Cambria County
sanatorium organizes reunion
Published: Sunday, June 27, 2010,
Not long ago, the Cresson Sanatorium for tuberculosis patients existed mostly as a faded memory among a scattered group
Now, it’s possible survivors, relatives and former employees will gather for the 100th anniversary
of the facility in 2013.
About two years ago, former patient Chuck Felton created a website devoted to Cresson, located
in Cambria County.
Since then, he’s heard from about 125 people with ties to the facility.
100th anniversary approaching, the Cresson Area Historical Society has asked him to float the idea of a reunion among the
people who have contacted him.
“Right now, I have 57 people who said they would definitely come to the reunion,”
said Felton, 72.
The Cresson Sanatorium operated from 1913 to 1964. It cared for people with tuberculosis, a highly
contagious and often fatal lung disease known as the “Great Killer” and “White Plague.”
was one of three sanatoriums run by the state; the others were in Mount Alto and Hamburg. Development of a vaccine virtually
wiped out tuberculosis in the United States by the early 1960s, eliminating the need for the sanatoriums.
may be survivors of the Mount Alto and Hamburg facilities, those facilities apparently haven’t sparked any websites
comparable to Felton’s.
Cresson, about 140 miles west of Harrisburg, later was a state hospital for the mentally
ill and now is a state prison.
It occupied a picturesque mountaintop setting on 500 acres donated by steel magnate
Andrew Carnegie. An estimated 40,000 men, women and children were sent there over the years.
The bodies of some who
died there were never claimed, and they are buried in a nearby cemetery.
Felton, who lives in Texas, is eager to visit
In 1955, he was president of his senior class in Towanda, Bradford County, when he was stricken with
tuberculosis and sent to Cresson.
He sat in the back seat and wore a face mask during a five-hour drive to Cresson
with his parents. Along the way, he realized his parents didn’t expect him to return home.
At Cresson, he
befriended a man who was about a decade older. They played chess regularly.
Felton recovered and was left after 18
months. His chess partner was sicker and had to remain.
Felton, who became an aerospace engineer, always wondered
what happened to him.
Recently, he was shocked to find a website listing the people who died at Cresson. He saw his
friend had died there and is buried in the nearby cemetery.
“I would love to go there and lay a wreath, and
I will, one way or another,” he said.
Harvey Docchio of New Brighton in western Pennsylvania was sent to Cresson
for preventive purposes in the early 1940s, along with his brothers. Their grandfather had tuberculosis, and their mother
died of it at 36.
Docchio, who became a college administrator, stopped at Cresson during the 1970s.
then a state hospital, but Docchio was allowed inside, where he was jarred by the sight of bars on windows that used to stand
wide open because of the belief fresh mountain air would heal the lungs.
He visited again recently and asked about
being allowed inside the prison gates. He wasn’t allowed in, and the employee he spoke to didn’t know the site
had once been a tuberculosis sanatorium, he said.
“I don’t know if they’d let us in but, sure, I’d
consider going,” Docchio, 78, said of the possible reunion.
While being sent to the sanatorium was a difficult
period in their lives, Felton and Docchio remember it as a well-run facility with a skilled and caring staff.
was a closed-circuit radio station in the basement. Children attended classes and were offered music lessons. Docchio said
he studied college algebra at 12.
There was vocational training for older patients and qualified younger patients,
including Felton, could attend Penn State University after his discharge with the state footing the bill.
looked at it as a blessing, because where else could the average person afford to get that type of treatment?” Felton
Still, the facility was also a source of dark memories.
Felton slept in a ward with about 15 other men.
Sometimes during the night, someone would begin coughing uncontrollably because of the lung bleeding caused by tuberculosis.
Staff members would rush into the ward, and wheel away both bed and patient. Felton has likened their speed and proficiency
to that of an Indianapolis Speedway pit crew.
They would often later see an empty bed with fresh sheets, and know
their ward mate had died, Felton said.
In his research, Felton learned that a painful treatment given to many patients,
involving injections of air into the lungs, had no benefit and involved a chemical now known to cause breast cancer in women.