Cresson TB Sanatorium Remembered
Newspaper 15

The following article was published in the Johnstown Tribune Democrat on Saturday, July 3, 2010.    Click the following link to go to the newspaper website: __________________________________________________________________

July 3, 2010

Reunion in works for Cresson San

Kathy Mellott

CRESSON — Some who were patients or worked at the State Sanatorium for Tuberculosis on the summit at Cresson prefer to forget those days.

But for a growing number – most now in their senior years – talk of the facility and their experiences is providing closure.

That’s the experience of Charles Felton, a 72-year-old retired aerospace engineer now living in Texas.

As a teen, he was president of his 1955 high school class in Towanda, Bradford County, when he contracted TB and was brought to the Cresson Township facility.

His 11-year-old brother accepted Felton’s diploma on his behalf and Felton spent 16 months isolated from family and friends at The San, a sprawling complex that included treatment facilities, housing units, a dining hall, movie theater, general store, post office, library and chapel.

Felton has turned what could have been a devastating experience into something positive and is in the process of organizing a reunion of patients and employees of what has long been called “The San.”

He hopes to bring former patients and employees together in time to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the facility, which opened in 1913.

A year ago, Felton started a website as an outlet for patients and employees looking for ways to share their San experiences.

But a San reunion was the brainchild of Etta Albright, a Cresson resident and retired registered nurse who worked at the facility after it became the Cresson State School and Hospital.

Albright also is a member of the Cresson Area Historical Association. She said The San and the success former patients have made of their lives should not be forgotten.

“Most significant is how people handled this challenging situation in an earlier time and how we can as a community and a country benefit from this,” she said. “The beautiful story we learned was that they dealt with it as best they could.”

The facility was one of three operated by the state as an answer to a near epidemic of TB cases brought to an end in the 1960s through development of a vaccine.

It was built on 500 acres of land given to the state in 1910 by Pittsburgh steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.  

In his youth, Carnegie worked in Cresson for the Pennsylvania Railroad and later purchased the land with plans to build a retreat for his ailing mother.

After reviewing annual progress reports sent by San officials to the state on a weekly and monthly basis, Felton estimates that more than 40,000 people were admitted to the Cresson facility.

“I had no idea there were that many people,” Felton said.

While some of those 40,000 died at the facility and many more since have passed away, Felton is convinced a considerable number are still alive. He thinks a number of former San employees continue to live in the area.

Through word of mouth and a notice on the website, Felton said he has heard from nearly 100 people willing to come to a San reunion.

Ron Nowicki, 75, a Pittsburgh native and a patient at the San in the early 1960s who now lives in London, likes the idea of a reunion and said in an e-mail to The Tribune-Democrat that he would try to attend.

Nowicki  worked in the publishing business for many years in New York, moved around and landed in San Francisco, where he edited a journal.

He is in the process of writing a book recalling his days at the San and growing up in Natrona, about 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

“I’m disappointed that we haven’t been able to contact more of the people who were our peers in the San,” he said. “Surely, they can’t all be deceased.”  

One former employee, Gail Seabolt, was a nurse at the facility and lived on the grounds for three years in the 1940s.

She was there through the closing of the facility as a TB hospital.

“I’m 85 years old. That reunion is in three years. I can’t guarantee I’ll be going anywhere in three years,” the Cresson woman said. “Most of the people who worked up there are old like me. There’s very few people around anymore.”

 Seabolt likes to talk about the days when she was young and working at the San.

“It was a town back there in the woods,” she said. “When I went there it was an 840-bed facility and we were at capacity.”

She recalls the network of underground tunnels that provided access to every part of the facility, with the exception of the movie house and cottages for those patients getting ready for release.

“The food was outstanding. In fact, the way it was up there, the state couldn’t afford it today,” Seabolt said.