Built in 1862 and spread over a 407 acres campus the Department of the Insane in the Western Pennsylvania Hospital of Pittsburgh was built to be a self-sufficient institution to offer state-of-the-art care for those suffering from mental illness and diseases of the brain. It opened with 113 patients, and all those who had ended up in almshouses and jails soon swelled its numbers. It was renamed the Western Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane at Dixmont to honor the memory of Dorothea Dix, a 19th-century activist for mental health patients who served as superintendent of Army nurses for the Union Army during the Civil War.
It was closed in 1984, and eventually demolished in 2006, however there is one part of the hospital that cannot be sold or repurposed which is the hospital's cemetery.
The Dixmont Hospital was legally separated from the Western Pennsylvania Hospital in 1907 when it was individually incorporated as the Dixmont Hospital for the Insane.
By the end of the century, the hospital was home to more than 1,200 patients despite being built to accommodate only 600. A Nov. 20, 1911, story in the Pittsburgh Gazette-Times announced that the hospital was no longer accepting new patients and that anyone arriving there would be put right back on the train and sent away.
It was primarily state appropriations that enabled the hospital to expand its facilities and care for an increasing number of mentally ill persons over the first nine decades of its existence. In 1945, it was taken over by the Department of Public Welfare. From that date, it operated under the name Dixmont State Hospital until it closed in July 1984.
The Dixmont campus contained over 80 structures. Many of the unused and obsolete buildings were demolished in 1967. These included many of the buildings that had housed personnel and equipment that had allowed the hospital to be self-sufficient.
Behind the Hutchinson building was the Rosenzweig House, an old white house that originally was home to the hospital's superintendents, but was later used as the security office. Near the service entrance on Ohio River Boulevard was the boiler building, reservoir/water treatment building, coal storage building, laundry building, and the iconic smoke stack. A sewage treatment plant was located adjacent to Tom's Run and still remains today.
As of 2006, the hospital had been demolished, even though the Kirkbride building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. The precarious nature of the hill that it rested on proved to be a challenge for the Wal-mart developers, and eventually, led to an engineering disaster. The demolition and clearing of the parcel atop the hill caused a massive landslide in September 2006, which dumped 500,000 cubic yards of soil, rock and debris onto Route 65, closing it to traffic for some time. One year later, Walmart finally abandoned the plans to develop the site and it remains as an empty lot.
From the beginning the hospital had its reputation as being haunted. The 1862 hospital was haunted by many entities, notably a male spirit who was said to guard the morgue area and frighten away intruders.
During modern times, prior to its demolition when it was occasionally used as a film shoot there were instances when doors on the morgue drawers would slam shut by themselves. Doors that were still on its in hinges in the buildings would also slam shut even on windless days and nights. There was another building which had a warm, fetid-smelling breeze coming out of the front entrance of the structure.
The burial records at Dixmont show the first burial occurred May 26, 1863, and the last on March 8, 1937. It wasn’t immediately clear where patients were buried between 1937 and the hospital’s closure in 1984.
Notices for families to claim relatives' bodies went unanswered, as did those saying that patients were well and ready to be released, so they were interred in this graveyard.
Joseph Steffy's headstone stands out as the only one with a name. He died June 1, 1881, at age 40. Steffy might have been a Civil War veteran, earning him the honor of a marker.
The cemetery could contain two Civil War graves belonging to Confederate soldiers who were brought north on prison trains bound for Elmira, N.Y., and off-loaded in Pittsburgh because of illness. It's unknown if their families ever knew what happened to them.
The cemetery is located off a dirt road on a wooded hillside. The grounds are overgrown, which seems to be the case even when the hospital was active. The cracked identical stones are marked only with an "M" or an "F", and a number. These numbers range through the hundreds to four full digits. These were the patients that died in the hospital that went unclaimed by loved ones. There are over 1,300 graves, including war veterans, who died from 1863 to 1937. Nearby there are several more ornate headstones commemorating the dead pets of the superintendents. Those include names.
Most of the patients were buried in wicker coffins and pine boxes. The graves were dug in straight lines, but today, the lines aren't so straight. They have slowly been sliding just as the rest of hospital has been subject to the laws of gravity.
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by Marlene Pardo Pellicer