Cresson TB Sanatorium Remembered
Newspaper 1

The following article was published  September 06, 2009 in the Johnstown Tribune Democrat newspaper.  Click the following link to go to the newspaper website:


Kathy Mellott won the Golden Quill Award in 2010 for her three articles about the Cresson TB Sanatorium.  See the announcement at:



Former patient recalls experiences at TB center

The Tribune-Democrat

CRESSON Charles Felton contracted tuberculosis as a 17-year-old in his hometown of Towanda in Bradford County.

That led to 16 months of treatment at Cresson Sanitorium – the “San” – a health-care community hidden in the trees on the Cresson mountaintop.

The Cresson Sanitorium opened in 1913 as one of three state-sponsored sanitoriums developed to battle TB, a disease that was killing one in seven adults.

Closed in 1964 and long forgotten by local residents, the San is now gaining renewed attention thanks to a Web site launched by Felton to draw together those who had suffered from tuberculosis or who had worked at the Cresson facility to share their experiences.

“It was just going to be sort of a personal Web site,” Felton, a retired aerospace engineer, said from his home in Lakehills, Texas.  “But then I started getting phone calls and e-mails from patients and people who worked there.”

Such a beautiful place’

At the time of his diagnosis, in 1955, Felton was an honor student and president of his senior class.  His 11-year-old brother, Thomas, accepted his high school diploma on his behalf.

While his classmates were wearing caps and gowns, Felton was at the San – a sprawling complex that included treatment facilities, housing units, a dining hall, movie theater, general store, post office, library, school and chapel.

The sanitorium 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 often returned to the mountain.

He acquired the land at what is now the Summit with plans to build a retreat for his ailing mother.  She died before Carnegie could carry out the plans. So the land was donated to benefit others.

Through the years, the San provided short- and long-term care for thousands of TB patients. Records show that in 1948 alone, the San treated more than 600 patients.

Much of the treatment involved drug therapy, rest, fresh air and sunshine. But doctors at the San also conducted hundreds of surgeries.

Once one of the two largest TB facilities in the nation, the San also was the site of experimental drugs and procedures.

The late Mary Liebal of Altoona was 13 when she was admitted to the San. She underwent rib-removal surgery and had a collapsed lung, her sister, Helen Liebal, recalled.

“I remember as a child because my father went up to visit her almost every day,” Helen Liebal said from her Hollidaysburg home. “It was just such a beautiful place.”

Mary Liebal died July 15.  About three years ago, she developed lung problems that forced her to use oxygen.  “I guess it was related to (TB),” Helen Liebal said. “But she lived 75 years.”

‘Tough job, long hours’

Dorothy Smay of Gallitzin worked in the kitchen at the San for six years in the mid-1950s.  She started when she was 16, lived in a dormitory on the grounds and eventually met and married one of the cooks.

“It was a tough job, long hours,” she said.  She recalls working six days a week, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.  Food had to be delivered to units for patients unable to get to the dining hall.  “It was a huge place,” she said. “When you had to deliver food, you really had to walk it.”

But she also has fond memories of the people.  “We were just one big, happy family,” she said.

Concerns of contracting TB were minimal for staffers because of the care they received from the doctors, Smay said.

For one Cresson woman, a patient at the San from 1949 to 1957, the stigma of having TB lives with her today – at the age of 84.

“My biggest fear was that you wouldn’t be accepted in the world, that (people would think) you were still carrying the germ,” said the woman who asked her name not be used.

Felton recalls learning from his sister that a neighbor in Towanda alleged that he contracted TB through casual sex.  “There I was in a TB hospital,” he said. “I was 17 years old and I’d never even kissed a girl.”

‘People were dying’

The Cresson woman said she was 24 and working for the federal government in Washington when her TB was spotted on a chest X-ray.

“I just accepted it. I didn’t think it would be a lifetime sentence. I thought I would be in an out,” said the woman, who spent eight years in treatment at the San.

The hardest part of the stay was watching other people die, she said, recalling a girl she befriended who passed away at age 16.

Death at the San was difficult for Felton, who recalls being awakened during the night by nurses rushing a patient out of the ward.

“People were dying around you and you never knew who was going to be next,” he said.   “I had a fever and I was very tired. I didn’t have much of a cough and I didn’t spit up blood. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to die.”

Like Felton, Ron Nowicki – originally of the Pittsburgh area – also contracted TB while a high school senior. He was at the sanitorium from January 1953 to December 1954.

Nowicki, now living in London, said he remembers the San with warm feelings and has many memories, including the twice-weekly shots in the posterior from a drill-sergeant type nurse.

For Nowicki and Felton, their stays at the San had a positive outcome.  They were eligible for state rehabilitation enabling them to graduate from Penn State.

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

Felton got a job with Douglas Aircraft as an aerospace engineer and moved to California.