Castle on the Hill

Castle on the Hill 

We make our way up a steep mountainside. Progress is difficult due to the pitch of the mountain and the thick layer of ice which had formed atop the fresh snow last night while we slept. Every step of our ascent is punctuated by a sharp crunching sound. It's loud, but seems doubly so in the early morning hours of a hibernating forest. Up ahead we see a clearing, and beyond that a massive red form in the otherwise colorless landscape. We finally make our way to the clearing. The massive red brick sanatorium stands in stark contrast to the white snow which covers the clearing all around it. The old building is beautiful to behold, but one cannot help feeling pity for it. This place was once of national renown, now it rots and crumbles in solitude.

Long ago a quiet town had come to nestle itself in a valley between two mountains. For the most part it was an unremarkable town, not unlike many of the others founded throughout rural New York in the late 1700's. This all changed with a single unexpected event. The 18th century was drawing to a close, and with only a few years remaining until the dawning of the 19th, people everywhere were excited to see what the new era would bring them. Change was in the air, and in the case of Dansville, it was also stirring deep below.

The day had begun not unlike the countless before it. In an instant though, the air of normality in the young town was violently shattered. A booming and mysterious roar bellowed forth from the wooded mountainside which loomed over the town. Obviously this disturbed the townsfolk in the valley below, and an investigation was quickly put forth. It took little time to uncovered the source of the disturbance – what had shaken the town that day was an eruption caused by a freshwater spring as it forced itself through the earths surface. They named it Breakout Creek. For many years which followed this new spring was of scant concern to the town far below. That is until 1851, when a young businessman came to hear of the mountainside spring and decided that it would be the perfect place to create a “water cure facility”. Hydrotherapy was a very popular practice during the mid-19th-century, and there are few better places to build one than on a rural mountainside featuring a freshwater spring. The new water cure facility opened it's doors for business in 1854, perched high upon the mountain overlooking the whole of the town below.

Unfortunately this endeavor proved short-lived and the original owner was forced to sell off within only a couple years. As time went on several owners tried to make a go of the business, but ultimately they too failed in their endeavors. So it was, even through the best intentions and hard work of many, that the natural mountainside spring bore little fruit for the town and its people. Or so it was until October 1858, when the facility finally found itself in capable hands.

This new owner had a vested interest in hydrotherapy and the medicinal properties of natural springs. His interest and knowledge in the field having been brought on by long term illness earlier in his life. Dr. James Caleb Jackson, just years prior had been at death's doorstep. However, he made a miraculous recovery after his experimenting with hydrotherapy at a water cure facility. This life-changing event deeply affected him. Not only did it drive him to obtain a medical degree, it also made Dr. James Caleb Jackson one of the most outspoken hydrotherapy advocates of the day. It seemed that if this facility was indeed going to survive, he would be the one to save it.

Restaffing with better-trained hydropathists, Jackson also incorporated the teaching that a proper diet is key to a healthy life. By the 1870's the now-aging owner had turned the successful business over to his daughter-in-law, who had also obtained degrees in medicine. Unfortunately, in June 1882, a tremendous fire broke out, the flames of which devoured nearly the entire main building. It was feared that the wide-spread damage would cause the water cure facility to close down for good. This was not the case though, and in October 1883 the facility reopened with the title of “sanatorium”. In place of wood, this new, larger structure was constructed completely of “fireproof brick”. The business continued to thrive, and in turn was passed along to her son and heir. Unfortunately, under the son's ownership business slowly stagnated, as society began to lose interest in water-cures. The facility was never able to right itself and eventually was forced to shutter its doors.

The building itself lived on in various forms for a while thereafter. For a short time it even served as a post-World War I psychiatric hospital for veterans. After that it came into several more hands, all of which attempted to re-establish it as a health resort, and all of which failed to do so. At this point things were looking quite bleak for the once renowned sanatorium, and it seemed that its days of use were all but behind it. With spring comes rebirth however, and in the spring of 1929 the facility once again found itself in competent and resourceful hands.

These 61-year-old hands belonged to an ex professional wrestler, and early advocate of body building - Bernarr MacFadden. These hands were also responsible for the magazine Physical Culture, which was one of the cornerstones of the publishing empire at the time. His popularity, along with his flair for health and nutritional education, revitalized the sanatorium to it's former glory. No longer was the focus on hydrotherapy however, being as the practice of water-cure was all but dead by this point in time. Instead the resort now emphasized a wide array of physical activities to keep patrons in shape.

Swimming, tennis, hiking, golf, and various other therapeutic treatments were offered here. The center also became known as a haven for celebrities of the time who wished to escape to the peace of the countryside. Bernarr MacFadden passed away not long after, in 1955. It is worth noting that this was not before performing a parachute jump on the property at the age of 81.

Shortly after that, the resort once again changed hands. However at this point history felt the need to repeat itself, and the facility began to decline in popularity. It was a slow and withering death, which eventually came to an end in 1971. It has sat abandoned ever since. Today much of what made this facility so great is long gone, most all that remains today are the walls. In fact there aren't even windows here any longer. The dark voids in the face of the building give the impression of sunken dead eyes, forever watching the town below with an unblinking stare.

Inside the mind once again latches upon the word “dead”. This building is a corpse, and we are climbing through its bones. Where one would have once found the beautiful front desk, there is now a massive hole caused by a partial collapse of the rear of the building. Long corridors of decayed plaster stretch out to the right and left. Its here that you find one of the only reminders of this place's former grandeur. Though buried beneath a thick layer of debris, the old are carpet runners that line the hallway floors are still present. Nearly completely obscured by filth, but very much there, and when you take a moment to clear the dust away you can see that they were once quite regal in appearance. That era is long passed however, and the sanatorium sits in severe disrepair. Crooked and broken doors are strewn all about, the floors are all swayed, and everything is covered in a reddish grime produced by the decaying brick. Exterior walls crumble under their own weight, but the mere fact that the building is even still standing is a credit to the engineers of the day.

As we traverse the second floor a deep groan emanates from the roof several floors above, the force of which sends a wave of vibration throughout the entire building. Logic states that what we experienced was the settling of an old building which has precious few years left in it. Still, if a building could openly weep, I imagine it would sound exactly as that did.

That light at the end of the hallway is a three-story drop.

The lobby and reception desk. Note the fireplace mantel, just behind the left side of the man with the cane.

This collapse is next to the front desk, where the lobby used to be. Here we see what remains of the fireplace from the previous image.

Here we see the sanatorium far off on it's hilltop. It was called the Castle on the Hill for a reason.