NRPH Part 1: The "New" Northville Tunnels

Photos date from November 2003 to August 2009, scanned from 35mm prints

It's been over 12 years since I first snuck into Northville State Hospital. I will never forget that long midnight crawl through the snowy woods in 2003—nor the thirty or so nerve-wracking missions that followed. And yes, I counted.

Northville State Hospital's name was later changed to Northville Regional Psychiatric Hospital in 1972. For the sake of brevity in this post, I will refer to it as "NRPH."


Ypsilanti State Hospital, Pontiac State Hospital, Newberry State Hospital, Kalamazoo State Hospital, Traverse City State Hospital, and Eloise Asylum were all filling to capacity by the 1950s, prompting a new, bigger-than-ever mental institution to be built in the Metro-Detroit area. According to the book Northville, Michigan by Barbara Louie, an approximately 450-acre site for the hospital was selected in the mid-1940s, and if I'm not mistaken I have seen an article in the Northville Record stating that the powerhouse was under construction in 1948. More buildings were added as late as 1979.

Northville was where Detroit placed all of its institutional facilities for almost a century. Out in the hills of Wayne County, it was the perfect spot to drop asylums, sanatoriums, prisons, and training schools, out where they could both be isolated from the city and take advantage of the cleaner air at higher altitude. In its heyday the tiny village of Northville was home to eight other institutions besides NRPH, and over the years they were closed down and abandoned one by one to the trespasses of the stealthy and the unscrupulous, making "urban exploring" a Northville tradition since at least 1969...

· Maybury Sanatorium—tuberculosis hospital [opened 1920, closed 1969]
· Eastlawn Sanatorium—tuberculosis hospital [opened 1924, closed 1976]
· Wayne County Training School (Wayne County Child Development Center)—institution for "feebleminded" youth [opened 1926, closed 1974]
· Plymouth State Home & Training School (Plymouth Center for Human Development)—for retarded adults [opened 1958, closed 1984]
· Hawthorn Center—juvenile psychiatric hospital [opened 1958]

· Northville Residential Training Center—institution for retarded juveniles, on the campus of NRPH
· Detroit House of Correction (DeHoCo)—prison [opened 1927, closed 2004]
· Robert Scott Correctional Facility—prison [opened 1991, closed 2009]


The article “We Learn By Doing,” History of the Wayne County Training School, by one of my colleagues, Adam Barrett, stated that by 1960 the U.S. Census indicated that the number of people held in Northville’s several institutions had actually surpassed the population of the town itself.


Construction of NRPH progressed slowly, and Dr. Philip Brown was selected as the first superintendent. The doors didn't open officially until 1951, and a major public relations program was endeavored "to help bridge the general lack of understanding between the public and the hospital," which Ms. Louie reported as having had a very positive effect. Though if residents had been able to gaze into a crystal ball and foresee the events of the 1960s to 1990s, they might have thought themselves well-justified in regarding the new hospital with apprehension. NRPH became absolutely notorious for walk-away escapes and related disturbances in the community—not to mention the usual intra-institutional abuses such as beating and raping patients, overcrowding, and general human misery.

Currently anyone can look up the history of this hospital as told in the local newspaper, the Northville Record, by going to northvillehistory.org/keyword.html, where all news articles from 1870 to 2014 are fully viewable and searchable in .pdf format. And trust me, there are a lot of them.

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In fact, growing up I had a neighbor who was institutionalized on and off at NRPH..."Crazy Harry" we called him as kids. Back in the 1980s he was sort of our boogyman on the block, since he always glared at us menacingly, and threatened us with various things for being near his prized lawn. Only once did he do anything that was truly worrisome—my friend James mischievously kicked some of his leaves and Harry yelled "I'm gonna go get my gun," so my ma took all of us kids inside and called the police, who of course didn't feel much need to respond since there was no actual gun present yet (nowadays such a phone-call would bring out the MRAPs, helicopters, and stormtroopers of justice). But most days Harry was just content with meticulously mowing his driveway and sidewalk...his "prized lawn" was actually in total shambles because he never mowed anything but the concrete areas around it. Of course it didn't help that us kids antagonized him half the time. He also liked to sit in his steel igloo in the middle of his driveway when he was having a bad day...it was totally invisible to everyone except him of course. Ah, memories.

My recollections of exploring NRPH are mostly this:


...endless steamy corridors that were infernally hot, noisy with the clanking and hissing of the pipes, and the oases of light separated by long stretches of darkness between bulbs as we hiked in formation in our alcohol-fueled nightly raids during the small hours after midnight, until dawn. And we only went at night.

This was a huge contrast from the 1990s when I hung out at the old Wayne County Training School, which had been vacant over 20 years and required little stealth to explore. Those tunnels were dark, cold, and filthy, whereas my first forays into NRPH were more akin to infiltrating an active facility. From 2003 to 2005 when I was first exploring it, NRPH still had a skeleton crew running the powerhouse, and several armed full-time state security guards on the premises doing rounds in vehicles and monitoring the surveillance cameras in all the buildings—which still worked. They had keys to all the buildings and they went inside them regularly to make rounds. Their office was in the front lobby of A-Building, which was the nine-story building in the center of campus. The Michigan State Police post next-door was still manned as well. There were padlocked gates in the tunnels at various points (though you could go around them by crawling through the pipes), and all the buildings were tightly sealed. It was a 100% miracle that I didn't ever get pinched there, considering all the mischief we got up to, and considering how incredibly vigilant the Northville Police were about the place.


The mission always began by entering the "Evil Woods," a huge tract of old hardwoods at the southwest corner of Seven Mile and Haggerty Roads; depending on our plan of attack (and our courage level) for the night, we might cut along the outer fence to the service road from Hawthorn Center, which was paralleled by a rack of steam pipes from NRPH's powerhouse.


Many a night of silently creeping through those woods or along that service road have been burned into my memory. If we thought we heard the sound of a security vehicle coming we dove back into the woods and followed the sound of the knocking, hissing pipes.

Keep in mind also that, for a couple reasons, I never did a good job photographing NRPH, so my photos are sparse, and offer only spotty coverage of the complex. There were entire years where I didn't take a single photo there. The reasons for this were that I considered NRPH to be: (a) architecturally monotonous, and (b) it was likely that we would run into trouble and have to evade capture, so I spent most of my concentration on situational awareness instead of setting up photos, (c) I wanted to be less encumbered instead of trying to sprint with camera gear, (d) I didn't want to have evidence dangling around my neck, (e) active steam tunnels are not really a friendly place for 35mm cameras (f) we always went at night which meant either lugging a tripod or using a flash, which risked broadcasting our location to security, (g) I let other people in my crew take care of photography. At least I can say that I got something in trade for my relative lack of photos—in all the times I went to NRPH from 2003 to 2009 I was never once caught, even though we did have some very close calls.


The very first time I snuck up to NRPH was in 1998 when I was going to Schoolcraft College with my cousin, and we decided to go for a hike in the woods across the street, to check out the "Haggerty House," an old abandoned farmhouse that was visible from the college parking lot. It turns out there was a string of newer houses back there as well, along what had once been a street—the houses were presumably used as staff residences for administrators at the hospital, since this was still a very remote area back in 1950 when there were still no expressways to Detroit.

Anyway, we continued hiking through the woods and eventually came across a trail. It led us to a big archway that said "HAGGERTY TRAIL" at the edge of an open field, and before us stood the massive NRPH complex with lights on and steam curling from its chimneys. We assumed it was a hospital of some kind, and it was clearly at least partly operational, so we left it alone for the time being.


After walking through the long narrow tunnels for so long, you would eventually come across these little rooms—almost like arriving at a subway station—with a light, a sign, and a ladder, indicating that you could go up into a building there:


As we explored more and more of the complex and were able to raid more offices, we came across better maps of the hospital. Of course our primary goal was to get a legit map that showed the tunnel system. This was a simple map handed out to patients who had grounds privileges...

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Notice that H-Building is blacked-out and not labelled—the best I can figure is that it was already abandoned by the time this map was made. H was always in worse condition than the rest of the buildings because it had been vacated much earlier and the state stopped doing maintenance on it. Building 71 is still shown on this map as well, a building that I believe suffered a bad fire at one point in the 1980s and had to be demolished. The presence of those two numbered buildings aside from all the other lettered buildings leads me to believe that the hospital had numbered buildings originally, and switched to the letter system later, maybe leaving 71 and 72 as office or staff buildings. Building 72 is the "L"-shaped one across from Building 71, which is labelled "Ed. and Staff Development."

Here is a slightly better map, though it still does not show any tunnels:

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Building 72 is labelled as the "Training & Staff Bldg" on this map, and Building 71 is also still shown. Note also that I have labelled the opening in the eastern fence where the big archway was that had the words "Haggerty Trail" on it. The fact that a fence is shown on the map dates it to sometime after 1984.

One night we came across an office in the F-Building, if I'm not mistaken, which had a huge map hanging up on a bulletin board showing all of the tunnels! Score!!

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This map was drawn up by the Wolf Wineman engineering firm in 1993 for the purpose of planning and showing fire protection system improvements done at that time. It also had a handy table in the fine print at the bottom that listed each building by letter, the year it was built, its square footage, and what function it served at the time:
A: Administration and medical (built 1950-51)
B: Admissions offices (built 1951)
C: Patient wards (built 1951)
D: Patient wards (built 1979)
E: Patient wards (built 1979)
F: Patient wards (built 1979)
G: Patient wards (built 1979)
H: EPIC Center patients (built 1954)
J: Patient wards (built 1955)
K: Patient wards (built 1955)
L: Harrald Carter School (built 1979)
M: Young adult patients (built 1954, expanded 1979)
N: Young adult patients (built 1954, expanded 1979)
O: Young adult patients (built 1954)
AA Blg: Therapy (built 1957)
Power Plant: (built 1948)
Laundry Blg: (built 1952)
Maintenance Blg: (built 1952)
Service Blg: (built 1954)
Blg 71: Staff house (built 1951)
Blg 72: EPIC Center patients (built 1951)
On the eastern portion of the map you see the row of nine houses strung out along the small street north of Hawthorn Center. I believe that the one labelled #81 was the "Haggerty House"; it and the one labelled #84 are marked down as residences for the "Highway Department." The map does not say when the houses were built, nor does it include any information about the Activity Center. One thing it does show however is that all the homes and the Hawthorn Center were connected to NRPH via electric and telephone lines.

Here is a zoomed-in view showing the tunnels more clearly:

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Notice that only three buildings did not have full service tunnels connecting them to the rest of the steam grid—only what are called "pipe trenches." Pipe trenches are much smaller tunnels through which the pipes and utilities are run, and they cannot be traversed, except maybe by crawling. The three buildings are O-Building, and Buildings 71 and 72. In our quest to explore every building in the NRPH complex we quickly saw that O-Building and Building 72 were going to be the most challenging to access, because it meant we would have to find a way into it on the surface, while exposed to the sight of the guards—and once inside, we wouldn't have any safe avenue of escape if we were surrounded. Another thing to note is that Building 72 is labelled here as "NRTC" (Northville Residential Training Center). According to a January 1976 article in the Northville Record, NRTC started in 1972 following the closure of the Fort Custer State Home near Battle Creek, and occupied four buildings—some of which were previously vacant—plus the Activity Center.

For years, all of our exploring missions began at H-Building, since it was the easiest to get to from the Evil Woods, and since it was the furthest from the guards' view or earshot, making it the easiest to coax one's way into (which sometimes involved a little noise). This next photo shows what I believe was the window we first snuck in through:


I'll be honest—the first night I squeezed into NRPH I was pretty nervous, but at the time we were afraid it would be swiftly demolished, and that unless we moved fast we'd miss our chance to see it. We had no idea it would end up sitting abandoned for more than a decade, like its predecessors the Wayne County Training School and Maybury Sanatorium. 

We did not use flashlights at all in the woods, nor did we speak above a whisper. We could follow Seven Mile westward for awhile, then after our trail plunged back into the deeper woods, and after about 40 minutes we came to "The Spool." That was the halfway point—an old cable spool that we used as a table for beers when we stopped to take a short break before following the ten-foot perimeter fence line the rest of the way in to the rear courtyard of H-Building.


I'm almost embarrassed to admit that the first time we made it inside H-Building we were so keyed-up into stealth mode that we were literally army crawling across the floor of the hallway, freezing at every unexpected sound, while the old fluorescent lights flickered to death above us. Back then—12 years ago—the place wasn't a total wreck like it is now.

Though it was still powered up, this building had been disused for some time. One Northville Record article reported on November 3rd, 1983 that an arson fire took place in the H-Building, which was already vacant at that time.


H was also where we entered the tunnels to begin our nightly sojourns into the depths of the NRPH labyrinth in search of new buildings to explore.

We usually came to explore in the wintertime, which meant that with our heavy coats on in the tunnels we quickly became intolerably hot, but that was just part of the job.


This was the entrance to the tunnel system as we saw it for the first time in the basement of H-Building...here began the adventure:


Past the first bend, there was no going back...


From H, the first thing you came to in the tunnels was the fork to J- and K-Buildings, but for some reason that I can't remember now, we started with E-Building, then D, F, and G; I guess we figured either those were safer to go into, or there was a better chance of finding cool stuff in them. As the weeks went by, we slowly branched out and explored more buildings one by one, usually spending an entire night on each new building.


Shooting long exposures in darkness was not easy with standard 35mm 400-speed film, hence the weirdness in these couple shots from D-Building.


This is a seclusion room, or a "quiet room" as they were sometimes called:


The Laundry Building, Maintenance Building, and Service Building were the places that we were the most likely to run into employees or guards, and as such they were some of the riskiest to enter, but they were also where all the good "stuff" was kept. This is the only shot I have of the Service Building:


The holy grail of the complex however was always the A-Building, since it was the tallest and contained the morgue, and it was where the guards were actually stationed. The Activity Center was a prize too, because we knew it contained a functioning bowling alley.

This is the room where the tunnel entered the basement of the Service Building:


The noteworthy loot we came across in the hospital complex over the years included official NRPH blankets, towels, patient ID bracelets, an office telephone (which I reused), plenty of interesting papers like incident report forms, and a nice vintage electric wall clock (though it promptly fell off my wall and broke, much to my dismay). The best thing we ever discovered I think was a huge stash of medical-grade ether, in a vault in the basement of the A-Building. In case you aren't familiar with it, ether is an extremely potent anesthetic used to numb pain during surgery, or as a solvent. It also has some rather devious uses as well, such as in making creative types of explosives, or as an inhalant to experience a feeling of euphoria. I definitely wouldn't know anything about that stuff though.


The Powerhouse was always a big "no-no" area when we first started going, because there was always at least two guys there around the clock, and they did not have any detectable sense of humor. We did creep up the tunnel to the basement of the Powerhouse in those early days however, and we found a strange barricade they had erected to keep interlopers like us out; it even had a homemade alarm rigged up to it that would sound an electric bell if it were tripped. I wish I had a photo of that, heheh. As the years went by the NRPH skeleton crew was laid off, the boilers were shut down, and we did finally make our way into the Powerhouse, but sadly that's another area I don't have any photos of.


I once scanned through all of the Northville Record microfilm in the Northville District Library, and in doing so learned a lot of interesting things, plus took some notes on pertinent dates and events. Aside from the many positive news articles about the hospital such as community events that took place there, some of the common problems noted in the Police Blotter section of the paper as having occurred at the hospital or that were committed by its patients (against themselves, each other, staff, or nearby residents) included the endless stream of escapes, numerous home break-ins, suicides and other deaths under questionable circumstances, larceny, burglary, arson, weapons possession, malicious destruction, mugging, assaults, knife assaults, rapes, a strangling, car theft, car arson, taxi theft, moped and bicycle theft, bomb threats, and holding hostages—plus jumping in front of traffic and other grotesque attempts at suicide via a third-party.

Most of these crimes were committed in the process of affecting an escape from the hospital by some means other than on foot; often the prospective escapee wanted a vehicle, weapon, or some other way of improving their chances of successfully evading capture, even if it was just to enact a diversion. Granted, despite all of these incidents I just listed, the majority of the "escapees" were harmless people who were just confused or lost. Most of them turned up in the restaurant across the street, which telephoned the hospital daily to have lost patients returned.


The reports of escapes started to become markedly prevalent in 1980 I noticed, and the intensity of the escapes and crimes at the hospital climbed steadily through the 1980s. Walk-away escapes were reported in every single issue of the paper, and I quickly stopped keeping track. By the October 21st, 1981 issue of the Northville Record, discussion of erecting some sort of a fence around the hospital was front-page news, and it remained a hot topic of editorial opinions and public discourse for two years. Some opposed the security fence idea because of questions about its practicality, its appearance, whether it was humane, or whether it would even be an effective deterrent.

In 1982 the idea of a "living fence" was debated, which was basically an idea to plant a hedge of thorny growth in the woods surrounding the hospital to deter or at least slow down escapees. Somehow this was figured as the humane alternative to a razor-wire fence if I recall correctly, and it was planted by May of 1983, though escapes were still rampant at NRPH. That October, one escapee was found as far away as Toledo. The December 19, 1983 Northville Record reported that escapes from NRPH had topped 800 for the year (an average of more than two per day). By the following spring, there was talk of building another fence—a real one—which again became a hot-button topic for the rest of the year.


An interview with Tom Watkins, a director of the Michigan Department of Mental Health, conducted in 2008 by the Northville Township Historic District Commission revealed that according to Mr. Watkins the "living fence" idea failed because the rose bushes that were planted never grew as well as they were supposed to. Having gone through those woods enough times, I can say that I was never overly hampered by any thorny vegetation at Northville (for what it's worth, Danvers Asylum in Massachusetts was surrounded by woods with a much more effective hawthorn undergrowth layer).

Mr. Watkins did not disguise his fatigue at the vociferous demands of nearby residents who were angry about the travails of living next to a mental hospital. At one point during a community meeting he apparently got fed up with being used as a punching bag and said, "Come on guys, you built your house in the shadows of a seven-story building, the largest psychiatric hospital in the state. You didn’t expect there would be some issues, maybe you got a better price for your property?" Apparently one woman replied to this by saying, "Well, I was told that was a state police post."


In the early 2000s the State of Michigan announced that NRPH was going to be closed by spring of 2003, since it was too expensive to keep open with only a handful of patients occupying a facility built for thousands. There were also of course maintenance issues with the buildings that had long been deferred, and needed to be addressed.

Many in Northville were anxious to see this prime piece of land developed for profit, and township officials had long wanted to reduce the amount of tax-exempt government property within their borders. Unfortunately for them it would not be so easy to sell this beautiful piece of land with a giant turd stuck to it in the form of a big abandoned mental hospital with big environmental cleanup costs.


This was the bend in the main tunnel corridor that led from the D-E-F-G cluster south to the junction for A-B-C and H-J-K. There was also a ladder here leading up to a lid, which my partner and I took upon ourselves to painstakingly unbolt one night, just in case we ever needed to make a quick entry into the tunnels from topside:


One especially fun part of the main tunnel branch was the flooded section where it dipped downhill slightly in the middle. We had to assemble a series of chairs gathered from various buildings, to form "stepping stones" that would allow us to make it across the flood.


Here was one of those "pipe trenches" I was talking about earlier, which ran to either the O-Building, or Building 72:


This was the typical entrance to the tunnels in each building of the "D-E-F-G cluster," since those buildings usually had no basement per se, but rather a small utility room that was at a slightly lower level than the rest of the foundation:


The lid opened like so, and you climbed down the steel rungs into the hot steamy depths of darkness:


I'm not sure why I have so many shots of tunnels and yet so few shots of buildings...


The tunnels were our sanctuary; any time we were put on alert that the guards were close by, we would retreat back into the depths and move to a different area. This happened fairly often, because in the beginning the state guards were pretty zealous about making rounds and checking building interiors. When they were replaced by a cheaper security service (in 2005 if I recall correctly), the risk factor of exploring NRPH went down significantly, because those guards didn't have access to the buildings, and they weren't paid as well either, so they were less vigilant.


All the same we did have at least one close call with police one night while we were leaving. I can't remember what slip-up we made to attract the guards' attention, but when we got to the edge of the woods before the huge clearing we had to cross to get back to our cars, I noticed that there were two Northville Township Police cruisers sitting in the distance with their lights off. They were 69'ing so they must have just known we were in the area somewhere, and didn't know our exact location.


We pulled back into the woods, and decided to wait and watch to see what they would do. The temperature was only 15°F that night, which made for a frigid couple hours of sitting in the snowy woods—especially with one of my friends having just lost his shoe in a swampy part of the woods. Dawn was not far off though, so we knew that shift change was going to occur at some point, and we resolved to stay the course. Sure enough, a little while after dawn the polyester convention broke up, and after waiting a few more minutes we made a beeline for freedom.


These photos are from the basement of the Laundry Building.


Look at that jungle of pipes...


And finally, the Grand Mufugwa itself—the A-Building:

Photo by a friend.
This light over a pit in the basement of the A-Building is clouded in steam, illustrating that the pipes were indeed still active in this complex:


We were always terrified to actually go into the A-Building, because we were pretty positive that the guards made occasional rounds inside the tower, since they were stationed inside the front lobby of the building. If we were to sneak up into the tower and the guards happened to go on patrol in the building too, we would have nowhere to go. There was more than one stairway, but it was still a huge risk. Not to mention there were active surveillance cameras, which the guards monitored on a bank of screens in their station.

I remember in the beginning we would test the waters by moving some of the cameras, tilting them so that they were pointing up at the ceiling, to see if the guards were actually paying attention. Sure enough when we came back a few days later to check, they had been moved back into position.


There was another night much later where a couple of my friends ran into some trouble in the A-Dock portion of the building (I wasn't there that night). They must have been spotted on a camera or something and were cornered by the guards, who went room by room searching for them. By hiding in some cabinets they were miraculously able to evade capture.

And as if that weren't ridiculous enough they decided to call the phone number to the guard booth once they got back home to let the guards know how close they came to catching them, using a relay operator for the deaf to conduct the call. The guards did not find this quite as amusing as we did however, but you have to admit that's hilarious. In later years, once security at the hospital had become much more lax, the same friend, Alex, managed to sneak into the guard station and swipe their old log book, which made for some fun reading, especially the parts that described nights of chasing us around.


Another seclusion room:


Besides the morgue there was also a fully-equipped surgery in the A-Building's tower, surprisingly...here is a set of autoclaves:


I never got to the morgue until a few years later, because for a long time the only way to get to it was by sneaking past the guard station within a few feet of the men who were put there to keep us out. Stay tuned to the next episode however, because I did eventually get there...


This was the operating room, with observation windows overlooking it:


This was the last photo I ever took of NRPH, standing atop the wall surrounding the patio on the roof of A-Building's tower in 2009...luckily by then I had access to a good digital camera:


CLICK to continue to Part 2


References:
http://www.northvillehistory.org/keyword.html
Northville Township...From the Beginning, A Journey Recalled, by Shari Peters
Northville Michigan, by Barbara G. Louie, p. 52-53
Northville...The First Hundred Years, by Jack W. Hoffman
http://www.northvillehistory.org/interviews/Watkins-Tom.pdf
http://www.asylumprojects.org/index.php?title=Northville_State_Hospital
“We Learn By Doing,” History of the Wayne County Training School, by Adam Barrett
http://wacots.org/tiki-index.php?page=Northville%20Regional%20Psychiatric%20Hospital
Northville Record, January 7, 1976, p. 6C
Northville Record, October 15, 1980, p. 4A
Northville Record, October 21, 1981, front page
Northville Record, November 25, 1981
Northville Record, May 4, 1983, front page
Northville Record, November 3rd, 1983, p. 7A
Northville Record, December 19, 1983, p. 4A
Northville Record, March 21, 1984, front page
"Lessons in Game of Life: Starting over Helped Ex-Globetrotter," Detroit Free Press, March 30, 2007, p. B1

1 comment:

  1. I grew up on Fry raod, theraoddirecty across the street from the amin entrance to NRPH. in the early 80s there were so many walkaways we had a state funded security guard vehicle at our bus stop every day. Sometimes when I was the only kid and it was cold I'd sit in his car and wait for the bus. Of course this was all quite normal to us having seen so many walk aways and the standard NRPH security and Township PD response. Anyway, love the write up here. S. Emsley

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