Edgar Allen Poe's wife, Virginia, was singing at the piano when she coughed. Crimson droplets appeared on her lips, the first sign of tuberculosis, or consumption, as it was called. Her illness inspired "The Mask of the Red Death," a gothic tale whose protagonist refuses to recognize death's inevitability. Poe himself was devastated when Virginia died in January 1847.
A half-century later, tuberculosis was still a scourge. In Minnesota, more than 20,000 people died of the disease between 1887 and 1899. At the time, the only widely accepted treatment was fresh air and a healthy environment, which stimulated the body's immune system. The therapy did not always work but, lacking a suitable alternative, officials across the country erected sanatoriums to quarantine and treat patients.
In 1906, construction began for the Minnesota State Sanatorium for Consumptives, or Ah-Gwah-Ching, about three miles south of Walker in Cass County. Overlooking Shingobee Bay on the south shore of Leech Lake, the hospital evolved into a massive complex of distinctive buildings exhibiting Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival, and Spanish Colonial Revival styles.
The sanatorium adopted new procedures as they arose. Artificial pneumothorax, for example, involved collapsing a diseased lung, which inhibited growth of tubercule bacilli. Patients survived on one lung while the damaged one healed. Then, in the 1940s came antibiotics, which were so successful at killing the bacterium that tuberculosis was almost eradicated in America by the 1960s.
As cases plummeted, tuberculosis hospitals began closing. After serving nearly 14,000 patients, the Minnesota sanatorium was shuttered in 1962, eventually reopening as a nursing home. The facility was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.
It closed in 2008, and the state divided the land, giving fifty acres to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for a wildlife management area, selling sixty acres to Cass County at a low price for its use, and offering the remainder for public sale. All buildings at the site, with the exception of a small gazebo, have been torn down, and the site has been made ready for future development.
Anderson, Rolf T. "Minnesota State Sanatorium for Consumptives." National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, September 1996. State Historic Preservation Office, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
Lundquist, Monica. "Ah-Gwah-Ching: Land ready and waiting for a developer." Brainerd Dispatch, November 10, 2010.
Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
With the introduction of antibiotics in 1946, tuberculosis cases plummet, leading to the closure of the Minnesota State Sanatorium for Consumptives in 1962.