The 105 acres of land that now occupies the campus of Penn State Beaver in Center Twp has quite a history. While I was student at the campus, there were many stories and legends about the land and even some of the buildings being haunted.
While ghost stories are often passed down from class to class at places of higher education, these stories might have more reason to be somewhat true. The land and buildings that were offered to the University to build the campus was once the home of the Beaver County Tuberculosis Sanatorium.
What’s a Sanatorium?
The idea of a sanatorium, a medical facility used for those with long-term illnesses and typically associated with tuberculosis, was proposed by Dr. Fred Wilson of Beaver. While in the Army, he contracted tuberculosis as a result of the 1918 Flu Pandemic. After he was discharged, Dr. Wilson was sent to Saranac Lake Sanatorium in New York to rest and recover – the only treatment available at the time for the disease.
Upon his return to Beaver County, Dr. Wilson realized the need for a such a facility within the county and, after conferring with District Attorney John Marshall, a bill was passed in Pennsylvania that established local county institutions to care for far-advanced cases of tuberculosis.
The TB Problem
Tuberculosis (TB) was an urgent health problem in the early part of the 1900’s, before antibiotic treatments became available in the later half of the century. The disease is caused by the bacteria mycobacterium tuberculosis. This bacteria generally attacks the lungs, but can also affect any part of the body including the kidney, spine and brain. TB is spread through the air when an infected person coughs, sneezes or even speaks or sings. If not treated properly, TB can be fatal. (Unfortunately, this is true still today, even with many medical advancements and vaccines.)
The Beaver County Sanatorium
Dr. Fred Wilson and his wife Ruth acquired 40 acres of land on Old Brodhead Road from the Huffmeyer family for a sanatorium to treat patients with this highly contagious disease. At the time, the property included a large building that was once used as a spa or club. The building had to be razed to make way for the three-story hospital which included exam rooms, x-ray, laboratory, kitchen and dining room, and housing quarters for the nurses and maids.
The sanatorium accepted its first patient on February 14, 1923 – a Belgian refugee of French origin and prisoner of war during WWI. It was later discovered that she did not have TB, but rather a lung infection as a result of the flu pandemic. In fact, the first 10 patients admitted to the hospital did not have active TB, but rather other ailments such as rheumatic heart disease or anemia. I first learned of this, strangely at my CPR Certification in Clearwater where the instrutor would give us old time examples of heart problems, he told us how this resulted in new guidelines set in place for admittance and new patients had be referred through the State Chest Clinic or have a positive lab test for TB.
During the next 35 years, 50 beds expanded to 60, with a waiting list of weeks or even months of 30-plus patients. Until the 1940’s, no drugs were available to treat TB so a patient’s stay at the Beaver County Sanatorium consisted of rest, a healthy diet and fresh air.
The sanatorium produced its own food for patients, growing vegetables in gardens and raising its own chickens and pigs. Patients worked in the garden as part of a gradual exercise program until they were healthy enough to be discharged. Local milk was also purchased from a neighboring farm owned by the Hartenbach family.
Remembering the “San”
Because of how contagious TB can be, Joyce Pruszenski, of Monaca, recalls how greatly the disease impacted her family. Joyce remembers her sister was affected by the disease when she was very young and the impact it had on the family. While her sister wasn’t treated at the Beaver County Sanatorium, her father and a few of his siblings were.
“I don’t know the exact dates, but my father, Eugene Parsons, was a patient at the “san” (his name for the hospital in Beaver County) in the 1950’s. He was transferred at some point to Lawrence F. Flick State Hospital in Cresson, PA, to have major lung surgery to remove a lung. His total time spent at the “san” and Cresson was 10 years. My father also had a brother (Wallace) and sister (Wanda) who were patients at the sanatorium, although his sister did not survive. Wallace had a similar surgery to my father, having part of his lung removed.
“We would meet with some of his friends from the sanatorium through the years during the 60’s and 70’s. While at the Beaver County Sanatorium, he learned to repair watches and kept busy repairing patient’s watches. I’m sure hobbies were probably important to keep the mind at peace,” said Pruszenski.
In addition to himself and siblings, Parson’s father was also a patient at the sanatorium in the 1940’s, but unfortunately did not survive.
From TB to Elderly Care
By the 1950’s, more developments were being made to treat TB including drug treatments and surgery. With these medical advancements, the need for a sanatorium was no longer necessary. Over the course of its existence, the sanatorium treated nearly 3,500 patients.
With less TB patients to care for, the extra space in the hospital building was used by patients of the Beaver County Almshouse. Located in what is now Moon Twp, the institution was the county’s first home for the elderly. This facility still exists, now under the name of Friendship Ridge in Brighton Twp.
From Elderly Care to Higher Learning
By the mid-1960’s, with no need for a TB Sanatorium and a new facility built for the county’s seniors, the land on Old Brodhead Rd was getting a new owner. Beaver County Commissioners offered the land to the Pennsylvania State University with some funds to renovate and construct a college campus.
Both the late-state Sen. James Ross of Beaver, who was a commissioner at the time, and Michael Baker, president of the Michael Baker engineering company and president of the PSU Board of Trustees, were instrumental in the planning and expansion of the campus. Penn State Beaver joined the University’s Commonwealth Colleges in 1965, opening its doors to nearly 100 local students.
Traces of the sanatorium still remained until just a few years ago. Penn State Beaver used the old hospital building as an Administration building from 1965-2004. A multi-stall garage was also used by the campus’ Office of Physical Plant to store vehicles, equipment and a workshop. A small cottage was also left standing on campus that was once used by the caretaker of the hospital. All of these original buildings have since been demolished.
The only trace of the original hospital is now a concrete pad that sits in the center of campus. The basement of the Administration Building was used as the IT Hub for the campus and when it was demolished, the basement portion stayed. There are plans to eventually relocate this hub to another part of campus.
Penn State eventually purchased additional land from the neighboring farm of Ralph Hartenbach, a PSU alumnus, and expanded the campus by building a student union building, dormitories and a dining hall.
It’s amazing to see how much history one plot of land can have and always interesting to discover what was and exciting to see what will come. From healing the sick to educating minds, the land on Old Brodhead Road has seen a lot through the years.