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Abandoned North Dakota tuberculosis sanitorium tells haunting history of sickness

Built in 1911 to house North Dakotans sick with tuberculosis, the sanatorium near Dunseith, North Dakota, closed in 1989. Left to the elements, the decaying buildings are a popular spot for urban explorers and paranormal investigators.

San Haven NDSU Archives
This photo from the NDSU Institute for Regional Studies collection shows the main buildings of the San Haven Sanatorium in the 1940s, looking north over the sunken gardens.
Photo courtesy of NDSU Archives, Institute for Regional Studies
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DUNSEITH, N.D. — The San Haven Sanatorium, now abandoned and crumbling in the hills of the Turtle Mountains, is rumored by paranormal enthusiasts to be haunted.

Built in 1911 to house North Dakotans sick with tuberculosis, the sanatorium near Dunseith closed in 1989. Left to the elements, the decaying buildings are a popular spot for urban explorers and paranormal investigators.

The site was even featured in an episode of "Ghost Adventures," a Travel Channel show. The episode, called “Dakota’s Sanatorium of Death,” portrayed the property as a dark, creepy place where Satan worshipers gather and hold rituals.

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Today, the site is owned by the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, and exploring the grounds and buildings of San Haven is considered trespassing. In September 2021, the Rolette County Sheriff’s Office blocked off the entrance to San Haven with police tape and announced on Facebook that the property poses an “increasing health and safety risk.” Anyone caught at San Haven could be charged with criminal trespass, a Class B misdemeanor.

The crumbling ruins of buildings have already claimed the life of one person since its abandonment. In 2001, a 17-year-old exploring San Haven fell down an elevator shaft to his death.

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But, what exactly happened at the San Haven Sanatorium, and do the ghosts of its past inhabitants allegedly still linger in its buildings?

The first patients arrived in 1912, when there was no cure for tuberculosis, often called "consumption."

A North Dakota law passed in 1909 created San Haven Sanatorium, which was originally called the North Dakota Tuberculosis Sanitarium. According to the State Historical Society of North Dakota, the facility’s governing board chose a location near Dunseith, on the south slope of the Turtle Mountains, as the location for the facility because of the altitude, less snowfall, drier atmosphere and favorable conditions for tuberculosis patients.

Steve Grineski, a retired Minnesota State University Moorhead education professor who studies how North Dakota treated children with tuberculosis, said the San Haven Sanatorium was one of the only facilities of its kind in the Midwest, besides one in Minneapolis. He recently published an article on the subject in the Journal of the Northern Plains, a North Dakota history journal.

“It was fairly progressive for the Midwest,” he said.

Open air was an important part of the healing process for patients at San Haven, including children, who attended school and sometimes slept outside at the sanatorium, Grineski said.

“It’s hard for me to believe this, but I never read anything about a kid dying from pneumonia or the flu, so somehow it worked,” he said. “Or they didn’t tell us which kids died from cold weather.”

Early on, he said, children and adults were cared for together at San Haven, but eventually, a standalone building and programming for children was created.

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In the late 1950s, patients from the Grafton State School, an institution for intellectually and developmentally disabled people, were transferred to San Haven. According to the North Dakota Department of Human Services, the population housed at the Grafton State School and San Haven peaked in the 1960s at around 1,300.

In 1973, San Haven became a division of the Grafton State School.

However, in 1982, the organization now known as ARC of North Dakota, sued the governor and state for the treatment of residents at San Haven and Grafton, both of which were overcrowded and understaffed.

In the lawsuit, ARC claimed that the facilities at both locations were harsh and cold, there were not enough staff to oversee individualized plans for each resident, and programs for administering drugs and serving meals were nonexistent.

ARC won the lawsuit, and the state was required to improve conditions in the Grafton State School locations. By 1989, the San Haven location was closed. It was sold to the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in 1991.

The buildings at San Haven, though damaged, still stand, at least for now. In May 2021, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians were awarded a $500,000 Brownfields grant to clean up the site, which is contaminated with asbestos, lead and other contaminants. According to the EPA announcement, the tribe plans to redevelop San Haven into a new housing development and campground after the buildings are demolished.

Spirits at San Haven?

Many died and suffered at San Haven in its long history, and Wendy Kimble, co-founder and lead investigator of Paranormal Investigators of North Dakota, says San Haven is full of spirits.

PIND is an organization based in Minot that conducts paranormal investigations for home and business owners. The organization was started around six years ago.

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“We travel around North Dakota, helping those who have passed and those living, as well,” she said. “We try to validate what business and home owners are experiencing.”

Kimble said investigations are very scientific. First, the team rules out any physical explanations that could explain what somebody is experiencing, then uses an electromagnetic field detector to sense spikes of energy and seeks out any physical items that could be causing those energy spikes.

Then investigators will usually leave the building until late at night, when they return with thermal cameras, night-vision cameras, recorders and other equipment.

Kimble said paranormal investigators generally don't use the term “ghosts” to describe paranormal energies.

“All the things that we connect with are just people on another realm, and we consider that to be the spirit, the energy, of a person,” she said.

Kimble said she has been able to pick up on these spirits from a young age.

Kimble San Haven Exterior
Wendy Kimble, a paranormal investigator, visited San Haven Sanatorium and took photos of the exterior of the main building.
Contributed / Wendy Kimble

PIND has not formally investigated San Haven, but Kimble said she visited the property a few years ago with a friend who had proper authorization to be there.

“It seemed like around every corner, you could sense the energy of someone that had passed at the sanatorium,” she said.

On the lower level of the main building, she recalls encountering a tall, slender and dark presence, which she described as intimidating. In a smaller building, she said she encountered the spirit of a young girl searching for her mother.

“Through my training, I was able to connect her to her mother and help her move on,” Kimble said. “On these investigations, we do try and help move those spirits that are lost or don’t necessarily realize that they have passed on.”

While "Ghost Adventures" focused its San Haven episode on Satan worshipers and evil rituals, Kimble said San Haven is not that sinister.

“The spirits there aren’t evil, satanic demons,” she said. “It’s just people who’ve lost their lives and just want that respect.”

WKimble_SanHavenOverlook.jpg
From the inside of the San Haven Sanatorium, empty windows overlook the Turtle Mountains.
Contributed / Wendy Kimble

Related Topics: NORTH DAKOTA
Ingrid Harbo joined the Grand Forks Herald in September 2021.

Harbo covers Grand Forks region news, and also writes about business in Grand Forks and the surrounding area.

Readers can reach Harbo at 701-780-1124 or iharbo@gfherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @ingridaharbo.
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