From Eugene we headed north on I-5. We made a short pit stop in Salem, only 66 miles up the interstate. I had done a little internet surfing the night before in Eugene, and discovered that the Oregon State Hospital was located in Salem. It was established in 1883 as the Oregon State Insane Asylum and is still in operation as a Psychiatric Hospital today with much of the original structure being used. The main reason I wanted to stop was that the main floor is a Museum of Mental Health. Of course Gary wasn’t as interested until I told him that it also had a full wing dedicated to the movie “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” which was filmed at the hospital in 1975. (Incidentally, they also used a harbour in Fort Bragg in the filming). Once again, disappointment awaited us as we arrived at the hospital to find that the museum was open Wednesday and Friday, but NOT on Thursday! We did enter into the foyer, and look around the grounds, as in most hospital settings, and old buildings, it was beautiful.
Although Beautiful, sometimes one forgets about the ugly side and history of such beauty. As do most state mental hospitals, Oregon’s also has a sorted past, but they are in fact trying to right at least one wrong that was done so many years ago. In 2004 – 3423 copper urns containing ashes of patients who died at the hospital between 1914 – 1971 were found on the grounds. As the cremains were unclaimed, they were stored for decades in a building which was the hospital’s original crematorium. The small brick building at the front,which was transformed into the memorial, contains the original emptied copper urns. Although the public can not go into the building, there is a Plexiglas window which allow seeing inside. Most of the urns have been corroded from decades of neglect. As you can imagine, the urns are stacked from floor to ceiling. We did not go into the memorial, although we did drive past it – and did research on arriving home. All of the cremains have been transferred into ceramic urns and housed in a columbarium wall at the site. Each new urn, embedded in the wall is marked by a perforated circle engraved with patient’s name, urn number and lifespan. If cremains are claimed from the wall the state replaces the urn with a brass hollow tube. (There is a list on the hospital web site of the cremains on the site – to date, cremains are still being claimed).
Although beautiful, I do know that many people suffered unnecessarily in these institutions. I believe that the in most cases the suffering was not intentional on any persons part. Yes, there were nurses, doctors and other such staff that were negligent in caring for the patients – but in general, procedures, medications and care was done to assist the ill, and to come by a means that worked best for each illness. Its unfortunate a number of treatments, and medications did more harm than good – but those that did work well are helping millions today. Its those patients that were, and still are pioneers in the treatment of mental illness. In 2056 will the treatments and medications in which we deal with mental illness in 2016 seem barbaric?
As we rounded the back of the building, across the field was the Oregon State Penitentiary, they are everywhere! Maybe next time we’ll hit Salem during the opening days and hours? But for now, back in the car, on I-5 heading north. During the drive north we were trying to decide if we should go to Port Angeles and then take a ferry to Vancouver Island, or continue on I-5 across the border. We couldn’t find the sailing times, days etc. quick enough so elected to continue on I-5 across the border at Peace Arch into Canada.