Sanatorium Hill

By Tobias Wayland; images by Emily Wayland

Madison’s old tuberculosis sanatorium stands sentinel over the Northport neighborhood, looming between it and the decaying remains of the area’s tortured past. The Lake View Sanatorium housed tuberculosis patients from 1930 to 1966, and although it is impossible to know how many lives were taken by tuberculosis in Wisconsin, by 1930 it was estimated to be the 7th leading cause of death in the state, with 1,514 residents succumbing to the disease that year. In the modern era, the city has converted the sanatorium itself into a home for the Dane County Human Services Department, but all of the remaining structures—and the remains of others that have fallen into disrepair—reside in what is now Lake View Hill Park and wilderness preserve.

While the main building is imposing in its vintage horror visage, it is the woods behind it and the small graveyard to the west of the old sanatorium that have the strongest reputation for paranormal activity. Reports of cold and hot spots, apparitions, strange lights, odd mists, and physical manifestations—such as being touched by phantom hands—are common on the trails woven throughout the tree-enshrouded Lake View Park, and in the nearby graveyard. The history of this area is certainly bleak due to the tragedy of the tuberculosis epidemic, but whether or not the metaphysical echoes of that dark time reverberate into the present is the question. And while I can’t own the truth any more than I can own the wind that gusts eerily through the sanatorium’s trees at gloaming, I do own my own experience, and it is that experience which I present to you now.

It is an unseasonably warm spring evening as Emily and I slowly walk up the hill that leads to the haunted woods. The hill is steep, but we are accommodated by the presence of a sidewalk, and the view of the old sanatorium against the deep blue evening sky is stunning. Naturally, Emily stops to take some pictures—some of the sanatorium, and some of the small purple flowers that grow entrancingly along the hill—and we trudge the rest of the way up the steeply graded incline. After briefly discussing our options in the shadow of the large brick edifice, we decide to tour the grounds before venturing onto the trails, since it’s still early enough that natural light will be ample for some time.

I personally have fond memories from my childhood of winter afternoons and evenings spent sledding down the slope that leads from the sanatorium to the street below, so I suggest we walk across that to what remains of the old nurse’s dormitory, and get a good look at the front of the building on the way. The darkened windows of the sanatorium follow us as we walk past, empty sockets staring from a rectangular skull. We cross in front of it, continuously checking over our shoulders, and approach the dormitory. The dormitory, unfortunately, is merely a canopied brick entryway set in a crumbling foundation at this point. A single, sad electric light illuminates the covered porch.

We take the short path between the main building and dormitory, and arrive in the back parking lot. The ancient water tower to the rear of the lot rises into the shifting hues of the twilit sky. Emily and I quickly take stock of it, and decide to head into the woods while we still have the light.

The main trail heading into the woodland area is well marked, but it doesn’t take long for the trails to become less distinct. It’s still early in the year, and there isn’t much undergrowth to distinguish between trail and habitat. We wander aimlessly in silence at first, while Emily stops as the mood strikes to take photographs. We have discussed the importance of intuition to investigation, and are determined to create a personal environment within which it can thrive.

As we walk I begin to notice a strange, light mist. It’s visible, but unlike any natural effect of water vapor I’ve ever seen. It appears as a layer of static overlaying the surrounding landscape. Emily says that she doesn’t see the etheric fog, but she does feel an uncomfortable cold humidity that seems to rest heavily “in her mind.” I feel it, too; it’s much colder within the woods than without.

After some time, we have made our way back to where we can see the silhouette of the sanatorium through the trees, and up ahead of the trail is the water tower. As we approach the tall structure, a loud, ominous bang emanates from within it. We don’t see anything that could have caused such a noise, but write it off as probably the work of local fauna.

It is just past this spot on the trail that I see a humanoid shadow walk out from behind one tree and disappear behind another. This occurs approximately twenty feet off of the trail, and the moving shadow covers a span of several feet before it vanishes. Emily tells me that she saw a hunched shadow figure walk a short distance and fade in the same area.

At this point we decide to move off of the trail. As the shadows grow even longer, and the last light of day grows dim, we stumble upon the crumbling foundation of a pig farm that once helped feed the sanatorium and its residents. The cement foundation is covered in graffiti, and the skeletal remnants of rusted support poles rise out its decomposing remains. The air here just feels heavy. It’s like wading through a thick psychic fog.

Emily is particularly unnerved in this area, as she notices several other shadows moving unnaturally through the surrounding woods. Finally, the light fades completely and I hand her a flashlight. I’ve brought my headlamp for myself. The illumination from our devices does little to make the decaying farm more comfortable, and I swear I see the faint outlines of human forms move within its tainted frame. We are intensely uncomfortable at this point, and leave the area in favor of visiting the graveyard. I can think of no better way to describe the creepiness of this place than to say that we would prefer the nighttime aesthetic of a cemetery.

It is immensely difficult to find the trail in the dark, even with our flashlights, so I bull forward, forging a trail through the thin underbrush and we emerge in the sanatorium parking lot. From there it’s a short walk to the graveyard. The graveyard is peaceful compared to the woods, although the same strange fog clouds my vision and a slight heaviness lingers in the air. The ambient light glinting off of the gravestones is beautiful in its way, and we decide that we’ve seen all that we’re going to on this night.

We walk back down Sanatorium Hill in silence, and I am left with my thoughts. I don’t know if what I have seen are tricks of the light, or some eerie aspect of the paranormal, but there is no denying what I have felt. That place resonates with you. It echoes and reverberates with a heavy, damp sadness that cannot be unfelt; and I know now why people fear to go into those haunted woods at night.