Lost Hospital — Arkansas State Tuberculosis Sanatorium, Booneville, Arkansas1

By the end of the 19th century in the United States, tuberculosis was a highly contagious, misunderstood, and practically incurable disease.  Its mortality rate was about 80%.

In May 1909, the Arkansas Legislature passed Act 378 to construct the Arkansas Tuberculosis Sanatorium.  The Act provided for in part: (1) the establishment of the facility to provide treatment for tuberculosis patients; (2) $50,000 for the purchase of the site, equipment and construction for the Sanatorium; (3) $30,000 for operational expenses for the facility; and (4) establishing criteria for admission of patients, including proof that any patient has tuberculosis and is a resident of Arkansas.

The governing board appointed to oversee the Sanatorium determined that it “should be located south of the mountains and will need a large tract of land, at least 1000 acres. The site should be a section free of malaria, where the drainage is good and the streams fresh and wholesome; the soil should be sandy or rocky in order for there to be as little dampness as possible. Pine lands where the timber has been cut off is preferable, and it must be where the transportation facilities are adequate for patients to come from all parts of the state.”

Located on the outskirts of Booneville, locals referred to the facility as “The Hills”.  The Sanatorium was a self-sustaining property, complete with living accommodations for patients and staff, buildings for staff entertainment, a chapel, an area for laundry, a plant for water treatment, an independent phone system, and a fire department. The Sanatorium even had its own bi-monthly publication, the Sanatorium Outlook, containing articles for patients and their families.

In its prime, the Sanatorium had 300 employees, and the patient population exceeded Booneville itself.  Notwithstanding, tuberculosis eventually became treatable through drug therapy, and the Sanatorium census began to decline. The Sanatorium closed in 1973. The campus is currently used as the Booneville Human Development Center, a state residential program for adults with mild and moderate developmental disabilities.

In March 1973, Act 320 undid what Act 378 had created in 1909, and it provided in part:

(1) the transfer of all Sanatorium property to the State of Arkansas; (2) the transfer of control of the Sanatorium from the Department of Health to the Board of Arkansas Mental Retardation – Developmental Disability Services; and (3) the abolition of the Arkansas Tuberculosis Sanatorium Board of Trustees.

In September 2010 the City of Boonville celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Sanatorium’s opening.  An article from the Arkansas Times stated:

The buildings are mostly abandoned now. Thank God. Thank God.  The long roof of the nurse’s dormitory is pocked with gaping holes. The old dairy barns and pig barns that fed the pale multitudes have long since fallen into ruin. The main hospital — the Nyberg Building, a tenth of a mile long, six stories high; an Art Deco colossus capable of housing over a thousand souls — has been largely given over to dust and the occasional pigeon. There is a sadness there. It’s palpable. It makes you believe crackpot theories about how buildings become batteries, charged with misery. In the upper floors of the Nyberg — empty room stacked upon empty room — the sorrow cooks out of the walls like dark heat. There is a constant feeling there: that the doorways are filled with eyes. One hundred years ago this year, the Arkansas State Tuberculosis Sanatorium near the sleepy hamlet of Booneville began accepting patients. The place eventually grew into a self-contained city, with its own farms and fire station, orchards and laundry, school and newspaper. It was a place where those with the deadly and contagious disease could be segregated and — to the extent which they could before the sacrament of antibiotics were visited on us all — treated. In a very real sense, it was built to be a place where those who lived there never had to leave. Uncounted thousands of them never did.”

Photographs from Booneville Development Corporation.

1 Comment

  1. stephanie (biggers)muniz

    I just want more info on the past of the sanatorium because my uncle was killed there.My dad and grandfather a patient there.My dad was very young when he was there.I would appreciate any info.Thank you.

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