• The story of Morningside Hospital is a civil rights story. Prior to statehood, there were no services available in the Territory of Alaska for individuals who experienced mental illness or developmental disabilities. At the time, mental illness was considered a crime. Alaskan adults and children were arrested, convicted of being insane, and sent by the federal government to live at Morningside Hospital in Portland, Oregon. They were taken from their families and communities by dog sled, train and boat. In the end, at least 3,500 Alaskans were sent to Morningside between 1904 and the 1960s, when Morningside was finally closed. Many were never heard from by their families again. These are the Lost Alaskans.

    The Lost Alaskans: The Morningside Hospital History Project is an effort by volunteer researchers to document the history of Morningside through territorial court records, national and state archives, vital statistics, genealogical and burial records, and interviews. Our goals are to have the Morningside story recognized as an important part of Alaska history and to provide information to families still searching for loved ones who disappeared decades ago.

History searches an asylum for ‘The Lost Alaskans’

By Julie Stricker ( jstricker@newsminer.com) Jun 10, 2015


FAIRBANKS — Back in Alaska’s territorial days, it wasn’t uncommon for a gold miner to go berserk in a lonely, remote cabin. A woman on an isolated homestead might fall into severe, debilitating depression, becoming catatonic. The territory also had its share of violent, sometimes mentally ill residents. At the time, mental illness was considered a crime.

Alaska lacked mental health facilities, so people who were mentally ill or incapacitated were shuttled into the justice system. If deemed insane by a jury, they were sent on a 2,000-mile journey by dog sled, horse-drawn sleigh, barge or boat to Morningside Hospital in Portland, Oregon. Few returned.

“People just disappeared,” said retired Alaska Superior Court Judge Niesje Steinkruger. “And many families had no idea what happened.”

Steinkruger and a group of researchers have been searching through territorial court records to find out the stories behind those sent to Morningside. She calls them the “Lost Alaskans” and will talk about her hunt through Alaska’s territorial court records for their stories in a University of Alaska Fairbanks Discover Alaska lecture on June 17.

Steinkruger is uncertain how many people were sent to Morningside during territorial days. The term “insane” covered a broad range of conditions, including mental illness, birth defects, drug abuse and alcoholism.

Families were torn apart.

“The youngest person we found was 6 weeks old, and the oldest was 96,” she said. The youngest were most likely severely developmentally handicapped. Many had Down syndrome or birth defects.

“It was a family trying to cope with a child that had special needs, and you knew that the only way families could care for a child with severe special needs was this horrible option,” she said.

Sometimes people, such as chronic inebriates, were sent to Morningside as a way to keep them from freezing to death on the streets.

“You have to consider the times. This was before psychiatry,” she said. “There were people there (at Morningside) with epilepsy and substance abuse and everything, including mental illness. Most of the treatment was about safety and a place to live. It was before pharmacological treatment.”

Steinkruger said her goal has been to gather a list of names of those sent to Morningside, many of whom never left Oregon and are buried in the Portland area. The hospital closed in the 1960s and all the records were lost. The lists may be able to help families looking for lost relatives find more information on what happened to them.

As she reads through the territorial records, Steinkruger said she’s struck by parallels to today’s criminal justice system.

“There’s just this huge cross-section of exactly the same problems we’re struggling with today,” said Steinkruger, who served as a judge for 19 years and also worked with the district attorney and public defenders offices. “The thing that really gets me is to look at how little has changed. We are still grappling with exactly the same role between safety, care, treatment and protection.”

Posted in Media Coverage, Oral Histories, Research Project News | Leave a comment

The Gardens at Saint Elizabeths — A National Memorial of Recovered Dignity

It’s time for memorial in Alaska.

“The Gardens at Saint Elizabeths — A National Memorial of Recovered Dignity is being designed by the University of Georgia’s College of Environment and Design, and will be incorporated into the existing 10-acre cemetery adjacent to the new hospital.

Saint Elizabeths, which opened in 1855, was the first federally funded asylum. On June 10, 2009, a dedication for the memorial was celebrated at Saint Elizabeths in Washington, D.C. Saint Elizabeths has begun preparing the cemetery, which holds the graves of more than 4,500 psychiatric patients, including Civil War veterans.

“The cemetery already looks more dignified,” says Larry Fricks, Chair of the Memorial Project. He added that, “While the formal gardens have to wait until we conclude the historical and environmental reviews, in some ways the memorial is already underway because the cemetery is being restored.”

No patients are currently being buried on the grounds of Saint Elizabeths and the memorial (as previously noted) will consist of the existing 10-acre cemetery plus an additional acre of gardens.”

From the http://www.memorialofrecovereddignity.org/ website

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Lost Alaskans Partners with FamilySearch.org

The Morningside Hospital patient database will soon be available on FamilySearch.org, the largest collection of genealogical and historical records in the world. And, not only is it the largest collection, you can use it for free. Here’s some background from their website:

“FamilySearch, historically known as the Genealogical Society of Utah, which was founded in 1894, is dedicated to preserving the records of the family of mankind. Our purpose is simple—help people connect with their ancestors through easy access to historical records.”

We gladly join and partner with others who share this vision. We pioneered industry standards for gathering, imaging, indexing, and preserving records. Advances in technology and the emergence of our digital world now provide an opportunity for us to share these resources with the world.”

The Morningside records are not yet available, but should be soon. If you’d like to check out the FamilySearch.org website, it’s here.

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Christmas at Morningside: 1923

The text on the photo reads:

Christmas Festivities at Morningside

Morningside Hospital provided three Christmas trees for the inmates. Natives helped to provide the entertainment which was held in the Assembly room in the new Parole House. Gifts were provided for all the patients in the institution by Dr. Henry Waldo Coe, the Chief Officer. After the exercises in the main hall the women retired to their own buildings where trees awaited them, while the men had their remembrances in the assembly room.

Photos 1923_0010

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Long Journey is Eventful

My last post was about citizens being hired by the U.S. Marshall to take patients from Alaska to Oregon. The article below details one of the more exciting trips. Patient Jennie Zimmerman was 49 and from Fairbanks. She was admitted to Morningside Hospital on March 2, 1919. Her diagnosis on admission was, “Paretic, noisy and destructive. P.c. poor.” She remained at Morningside for more than 20 years, dying on January 18, 1941. Her two daughters, who were living in Portland, were notified.

Morning Oregonian, March 10, 1919

Morning Oregonian, March 10, 1919

From the Morning Oregonian: The sole custodian of an insane woman, whom she was taking from Fairbanks, Alaska to Morningside asylum, in this city, Miss Lillian D. Hill of Fairbanks recently arrived here safely with her charge, after a terrible experience on the way, when the woman, Mrs. F. C. Zimmerman, escaped from her and made her way at midnight to an Alaskan glacier. Miss Hill, her task completed, is now on her way back to Fairbanks.

Miss Hill was engaged as a “matron” by the United States Marshall in Fairbanks despite her slight build and the 160 pounds of the patient. The trip of 400 miles over the trail from Fairbanks is trying for a man acclimated to the country, but for a woman in charge of an insane person, the trip proved to be a thriller, according to Miss Hill.

Black Rapids Roadhouse

Black Rapids Roadhouse

It was at the Rapids Roadhouse, half way between Tanana valley, of which Fairbanks is the center, and the coast, that the patient decided to wander out into the night. Her absence was discovered shortly afterwards by Miss Hill who followed her tracks in the snow. Neither of the women were clothed other than their night garments. Miss Hill, running from the roadhouse in terror that Mrs. Zimmerman would become lost, did not stop to don so much as a cloak. She found Mrs. Zimmerman after a search lasting three-quarters of an hour on the glacier.

“I didn’t dare leave the women,” said Miss Hill, “for if I went back for assistance I was afraid she might perish. For a few minutes I didn’t know what to do. If we stood still we would freeze to death and if we stayed out we might die of exposure. There was no telling how long whim would keep my patient from refusing to return.

“Finally, I succeeded in inducing her to walk back and forth on the glacier for three-quarters of an hour, until she became exhausted and was willing to return to the roadhouse.”

The remainder of the trip was made without incident.

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Citizens Hired as Guards for Patients and Prisoners

I got an interesting email yesterday from John Drews, who relayed a part of the Morningside story I’d never heard before.

“Many years ago I interviewed a gentleman in Fairbanks who had worked as a Deputy Marshall in Alaska during the territorial days. He told me about criminals and “others” that would be held in the jail until court hearings could be held. This could take up to a year at times because of the traveling justice.

When they had folks that were to be transported out of Alaska, they would advertise that any honest civilian wanting to go to Seattle could hire on as a temporary deputy to assist on the trip. They would transport criminals and the “insane” together and many times had to keep them all in restraints. He told of one man who had to be strapped to a cot for the entire trip because of his insanity and violence. The trips were made from Fairbanks by stage or later by train and then onto a steamer bound for Seattle. He never mentioned Morningside by name but it is pretty clear now.

The fellow I interviewed was a Deputy Marshall there in the 30’s & early 40’s, he later joined the Fairbanks Police Department. I was employed at FPD from 1975-95 and was interested in the early history of the department and did the interview for that reason.”

After doing a little research on newspaperarchives.com, it was apparent that this practice started very early on. The following article is from December 17, 1908 edition of the Fairbanks Daily News.

FDN 12171908


Posted in 1900-1929, 1930-1949, Media Coverage | Leave a comment

It’s HERE! The Morningside Hospital Patient Database

Carlson, Gustave-1When the Lost Alaskans blog went online five years ago, we began to hear from people who were searching for friends and relatives who were committed to Morningside Hospital, some as long as one hundred years ago. We hope the Morningside Hospital Patient Database will make their search easier and answer their questions.

There are three types of records available. The Quarterly Reports have diagnoses and other information on patients, the Death Certificates are those who died while at Morningside, and the court records document the commitment process. There are gaps in all of the record sets so the search continues.

The database will be formally announced in January. In the meantime, give it a try and send comments and recommendations. Click on Search Patient Records and then enter at least three consecutive letters of the patient’s last name and, optionally, any part of the patient’s first name. The database searches both the name as entered as well as alternate spellings found in the records.

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority for their long-term support, especially over the past six months. The Trust made it possible for our volunteer researchers to get to record archives in Maryland, Alaska and Oregon. The entry of 45,000 records would not have been possible without Trust support.

And thanks to the volunteers who collected the information in the database. Volunteers by type of record are Meg Greene and Niesje Steinkruger (Court Records), Eric Cordingley, David Anderson and Sally Mead (Death Certificates) and Marylou Elton, Karen Perdue, Ellen Ganley and Robin Renfro (Quarterly Reports), and Deborah Smith (Alaska State Archives).

Many thanks to Doug Toelle, our project manager at Access Alaska And last, but not least, thanks to database programmer Don Kiely, web designer Jana Peirce, and data entry queen Nancy Lowe, all of whom are hugely talented and extremely patient.

Posted in Court Records, Morningside Hospital, Patient Burials, Patient List, Research Project News | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Early Travel to Morningside

Niesje Steinkruger sent this picture of the Valdez Stage. Her description is below. Keep in mind that the trail between Fairbanks and Valdez was 400 miles long.

Valdez Stage“This is  a good picture of the Valdez Stage.  Many patients travelled from Fairbanks and the Interior to Valdez  via this Stage.  It was a long, hard trip by Stage, Boat and Train to Morningside Hospital in Portland.  The patient was accompanied by a US Marshall. Sometimes the patient was transported with convicted criminals the Marshall was taking south.”

Posted in 1900-1929, Photos, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Memories of Morningside Hospital from a Staff Psychiatrist

 Published: Sunday, August 26, 2012, 6:00 AM


I read with interest The Oregonian’s Aug. 5 article about Morningside Hospital. The article focused primarily on the deaths and inadequate care of the “inmates.”

The researchers said they’d never heard of the hospital before, so they obviously had no firsthand knowledge of its standards and practices.

I worked as a psychiatrist at Morningside from 1962 to 1966. I was not aware at any time while there of patient abuse or foul play. I compare the care given to patients there as better than most state hospitals of the time and even now, and I have known several first-hand. Patients were treated with respect and kept as active as possible. Those capable were expected to work, a practice widely used in institutions of the time, and a good idea at that.

Commitment in the early days followed now-outdated state laws. However, I did not see many who did not have a good reason to be there. Return of “inmates” to Alaska was held up primarily because authorities did not want them returned. It was common practice in those days to “institutionalize” patients, to keep them away from general society. Thus, the hospitals were really asylums for the mentally handicapped. Read More »

Posted in 1950-1960s, Oral Histories, Quality of Care | 4 Comments

More Death Certificates Online


Nearly 300 more death certificates are now available in the Morningside Hospital Research Archive. Once again, we have Eric Cordingley and David Anderson of Portland to thank for these invaluable records. I’m sure they’re on a first name basis with everyone who works at the State of Oregon Archives. Thanks to Eric and David’s dedication and persistence, there are now approximately 500 death certificates posted in the Research Archive.


Posted in 1900-1929, 1930-1949, 1950-1960s, Patient Burials | 1 Comment