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Celebrating a century of restoration

April 30, 2001

Celebrating a century of restoration



By RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer


SOUTH MOUNTAIN, Pa. - In 1901 Dr. Joseph Trimble Rothrock, Pennsylvania's first commissioner of forestry, moved into a tent on South Mountain in hopes the clean air would cure his "lung trouble."

It was suspected that Rothrock was suffering from tuberculosis, a little-known disease at the turn of the last century. Most 19th-century deaths were attributed to the disease, also known as consumption.

Rothrock's tent was the beginning of what would become the South Mountain Sanatorium. Still later it was renamed the South Mountain Restoration Center, as it is known today.

The center celebrates its 100th anniversary with open house activities May 12.

Among those cared for at the center over the decades were tens of thousands of TB patients, hundreds of U.S. Army soldiers who were gassed in World War I and mentally retarded women. Today its mission is caring for geriatric patients sent to the center from the state's nine mental hospitals.

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Included are some very old prison inmates who have reached the nursing home stage of life and no longer pose a danger.

Also spread out among the 300 acres are two private facilities for troubled youths adjudicated by the courts. Vision Quest opened its unsecured camp in 1992. Two years later Abraxas opened a secured facility for youths.

Dr. S. Reeves Power, administrator of the center since 1999, said the patient population today numbers around 190. Many are no longer ambulatory, Power said.

In the mid-1980s the center's population of elderly mental patients was more than 700, Power said.

South Mountain is the only facility of its kind in the state, he said.

Only 14 of what were once dozens of buildings at South Mountain are in active use today. The largest is Unit One. Built in 1938, the 282,000 square-foot, seven-story building that looms above the campus houses the administration offices and resident rooms.

The next largest, Unit Two, was built in 1939. Its 138,000 square feet served as a children's hospital, or "preventorium," for children with tuberculosis or suspected of having the disease. Some were just malnourished, but the disease was so feared that few were willing to take chances in those early days.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s discussions began on converting the center into a state prison or veterans home. Neither plan materialized.

A look at life in the days when it was a TB sanatorium is detailed in "The History of South Mountain Restoration Center 1901-2001," written by Kathryn Yelinek. Yelinek, a Waynesboro native and senior at Bryn Mawr College wrote the history for the center's 100th anniversary.

According to Yelinek's history, Samuel G. Dixon, state commissioner of health from 1905 to 1918, designed the John Gilbert Chapel, which is no longer in use, and the 56 "Dixon cottages." The eight-bed, 26-foot-square frame Dixon cottages were sited so their corners faced all four compass points. The position allowed the sun to shine on each of the four sides at some point during the day.

The cottages' large windows stayed open year-round to let fresh air in.

None is left on the center grounds. Some were dismantled. Others were moved off the grounds and converted into private homes or other uses.

Between 1938 and 1940 more than 1,200 TB patients were being cared for at the sanatorium, according to Yelinek's history. Some patients stayed for years.

The late 1940s brought the discovery of antibiotics that began to wipe out tuberculosis. By 1966 the last TB patients had left South Mountain.

Two years later it became the South Mountain Restoration Center. Elderly mental patients were moving in.

Today, Power said, about 360 people work at the center. They include physicians, social workers, nurses, dietitians and housekeeping and maintenance workers. The center is also a training ground for students in a certified nursing assistants program, he said.

The Rev. Joseph Carolin, 60, one of two Catholic chaplains at the center, has served there since 1978.

"Tuberculosis sanatoriums sprang up around the country in the early 20th century," he said. "Some people were cured in them, but many died.

"South Mountain was started by Dr. Rothrock as a camp for tuberculosis patients who stayed in tents at first."

Yelinek's book costs $5 and can be bought at the May 12 celebration or by calling Power's office at 1-717-749-4000.

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