In my writings I’ve often referred to sanitariums as being one of the main industries of our early community. Today we generally think of sanitariums as being lockup facilities for the insane, but that was not the case in the early days of sanitariums. They were facilities to care for any chronic diseases, physical or mental, and the Crescenta Valley had sanitariums of both kinds.
The origins of the sanitarium industry in CV are rooted firmly in the treatment of tuberculosis. In the 19th Century, as urban areas crowded people together, particularly in Europe and the eastern U.S., tuberculosis, or TB, became rampant. TB was little understood, and it was only in the 1870s that it was even recognized as being contagious. There was no treatment or cure, and contracting the disease was a death sentence.
It was at about this time that a successful fruit grower in Santa Paula lost his wife to TB. Having lung problems of his own, possibly related to a gunshot wound he had suffered years before but more likely due to his own TB infection, he went on a quest to find a cure for TB.
Being well off financially, he traveled the world, educating himself on the latest theories on TB, and radical new treatment methods. One theory gaining popularity at that time was that air quality could favorably affect the progression of the disease. Many TB sufferers were heading for drier climates in the western U.S., hoping that clean pure air, with a dose of the physical rigors of an outdoor lifestyle, would save their lives.
This former fruit grower, now a doctor, latched on to this idea. He wanted to establish a hospital for the treatment of TB and other lung diseases and searched for the best location, eventually deciding on the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. In 1881, Dr. Benjamin Briggs purchased what is now known as Briggs Terrace at the top of Briggs Avenue, to establish one of the early sanitariums of the western U.S.
Whether Dr. Briggs was successful in treating his patients has never been recorded. We hear anecdotally that he employed his patients in building endless rock walls around the sanitarium grounds with CV’s endless supply of rocks, presumably to foster physical fitness in his afflicted sanitarium residents. We also hear that he treated his patients with Yerba Santa, an extremely common plant in our mountains, which he would have learned of from whatever remnants of the local Indians that were still around. It was an herb used by the local tribes to strengthen the lungs.
But Dr. Briggs didn’t last too long himself, dying in 1893, probably from TB, perhaps complicated by the previously mentioned gunshot wound that never really healed. Although he was only in the valley 12 years, he had a huge impact on its development, one aspect of which was to make the Crescenta Valley a mecca for health seekers. Other doctors established sanitariums here after Dr. Briggs, and the valley became famous for its healthful climate and availability of treatment centers. Several large lung disease hospitals were established here including Utley’s Sanitarium at the top of Briggs (just below Brigg’s Sanitarium), Mt. Lukens Sanitarium, now the site of Dunsmore Park, and Hillcrest Sanitarium at the top of Lowell. Several small sanitariums, basically larger homes converted to accept patients, thrived here as well, so that by the late ’20s there were a score of treatment facilities here. Not only was TB treated, but also asthma and bronchitis.
Along with the medical sanitariums, mental sanitariums began to pop up. Kimball’s Sanitarium, where Ralphs is today, treated insanity and drug addiction, and has provided a treasure trove of infamous stories for historians today. Rockhaven Sanitarium was more sedate, being created for women with mental and emotional issues, eventually specializing in the elderly with dementia.
Rockhaven, located on Honolulu Avenue between La Crescenta and Rosemont avenues, is the only sanitarium that has survived intact, but there are several bits and pieces of defunct sanitariums all around CV, and I’ll talk about those next week.