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SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Group hopes for information on Alaskans sent to Morningside

Portland mental health facility housed 3,500 Alaskans prior to statehood



February 11, 2016
Thursday AM

Ketchikan, Alaska - For more than half a century, the territory of Alaska had no facility to deal with mental illness or developmental disabilities.

As a result between 1904 and the early 1960s, Alaskan residents who needed such a facility were sent Outside, nearly all went to Morningside Hospital in Portland. At least 3,500 Alaskans ended up at Morningside and many lived out their days there, never seeing Alaska or their families again.

Morningside was founded in 1899 by Dr. Henry Waldo Coe. It was located on a nearly 50 acre parcel of land at the corner of SE Stark Street and 96th Avenue.

Morningside Hospital promotional postcard from 1925
Portland, Oregon - Graphic courtesy

The facility went by several names in its early years, including “Dr. Coe's Nervous Sanitarium,” “Mindease,” “Mt. Tabor Sanitarium” and “Crystal Springs Sanitarium.”

In 1904, Dr. Coe was awarded a contract from the US Department of the Interior to care for mentally ill and handicapped patients from Alaska. That allowed him to expand his facility and he did so by purchasing buildings from the Lewis and Clark Centenary Exposition and moving them to the Morningside site. The Alaskan patients, approximately 3,500 of them, would make up the majority of Morningside's patients over the next five decades.

Coe died in 1927 and was succeeded at the hospital by his son, Wayne Coe.

Originally the parcel included both the hospital and surrounding farm land, but after World War II most of the farm land was converted into subdivision housing.

In 1955, Oregon U.S. Rep. Edith Green moved to transfer care of Alaskan patients back to Alaska. She accused the Coe family of financial impropriety in running the facility and the General Accounting Office opened an investigation. Also among Green's charges, according to a 1956 article in the Oregonian newspaper was that Coe used patients for labor on the home and covered it up as "occupational therapy."

Morningside denied the claims and ultimately no charges were filed. Morningside was fully reaccredited by 1957, but by then Alaska was moving toward statehood and was making plans for dealing with the mentally ill and handicapped in the state. As the Alaskans were transferred north, the Coe family attempted to find other sources of clients and began taking local people.

The door to transferring Alaskans back home was further opened by Public Law 84-830, known as the Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act of 1956. It was an Act of Congress passed to improve mental health care in the United States territory of Alaska. (Editor's Note: The bill became the focus of a major political controversy at the time after opponents nicknamed The Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act of 1956 the "Siberia Bill" and denounced it as being part of a communist plot to hospitalize and brainwash Americans. The debates over this bill were a major factor leading to the deinstitutionalization of the physically & mentally challenged throughout the United States in the 1960s.)

Never Returning to Alaska: Pearl Atkinson of Ketchikan, Alaska
Born Nov. 24, 1941 - Died Apr. 12, 1961 ( Morningside Hospital )
Burial: Greenwood Hills Cemetery - Portland, Oregon
Plot: Sec. 10, Lot 500, Row 6, Gr. 10

Morningside also began advertising itself as an "open" facility, one in which patients were not locked in their rooms, but instead were controlled through medication. Those efforts came to naught and the facility eventually closed in the late 1960s.

After the last three patients left in 1968, the site was sold and redeveloped as a shopping mall (Mall 205) and the Adventist Medical Center.

In 2008, an effort began to document the Alaskans who were sent to Morningside, many of whom never returned to Alaska. “The Lost Alaskans: The Morningside Hospital Project” maintains a website that includes patient records on many of the Alaskans who were interned at the facility. Although most of the hospital records were destroyed in a fire many years ago, many of the records have been recreated through other federal government sources.

Never Returning to Alaska: Wilbur "William" Baldwin of Anchorage
Born Jan. 2, 1881 (Utica, Illinois) - Died Sep. 7, 1963 ( Morningside Hospital)
Baldwin lived at Morningside Hospital for 33 years. He had previously lived in Anchorage, Alaska.
Burial: Greenwood Hills Cemetery - Portland, Oregon
Plot: Section 10, Lot 500

As part of its efforts, the non-profit group is trying to search out the records and come to a proper accounting of all the Alaskans who were sent to Morningside. They are also searching through the remaining federal records in order to find out more information and add to the names on the known patients. The group has put together a web site with photos, stories and a searchable patient data base. They are asking anyone with information to contact them.

That website can be found at

In many cases the remaining federal records are incomplete, people given only a first and a last name or initial, many not having records of what treatment they received or when they were released. Some of the records are very detailed, although frequently the detail means that each year the facility re-entered the record from the previous year either through laziness or because the patient's condition hadn't changed.

It is not unusual to find decades’ worth of records simply repeating a diagnosis such as “melancholy” or patients being “uncooperative” or “unresponsive.”

Never Returning to Alaska - Ruth Carter of Kotzebue
Birth: Nov. 29, 1913 - Death: Mar. 11, 1938
Native Alaskan. Morningside Hospital patient.
Burial: Multnomah Park Cemetery - Portland, Oregon
Plot: G, 18,2

One record for a patient from Juneau indicates that the patient was admitted in July of 1934 as “criminally insane and a danger to himself and others.” Then a month later, the patient was released and returned to Juneau. We are left to marvel at just what miraculous cure was used.

Many of the patients came from remote communities where mining was taking place. Apparently the oft told tale of miners going stir crazy in their isolated cabins in Alaska was not unusual, at least in the first couple of decades of the 20th Century. Especially in “Cape Nome” which has hundreds of people on the Morningside rolls.

In the early territorial days, mental illness was considered a crime in Alaska, therefore many of the Alaskans who were sent to Morningside had been convicted of crimes initially and spent time in the legal system and some of Morningside's records are from those sources as well. Frequently many of these individuals were apparently released in a fairly short period of time and returned to Alaska or to relatives in the Lower 48.

The records are not sorted by community so it is impossible to tell exactly how many of the 3,500 people sent to the facility were from Ketchikan, but a quick scan of the database turned up more than 100 names of people who were sent to Morningside from “Ketchikan”. There were also about a dozen people who were sent from Craig and Klawock and Hydaburg and half a dozen from Metlakatla.

Never Returning to Alaska: Ermia Bolamatoff of Valdez, Alaska
Birth: unknown - Death May 18, 1914
Ermia Balamatoff was a Aleut native who was from the Valdez area of Alaska. He was tried for a "butcherous murder" for which he was found insane and sent to Morningside Hospital in Portland, where he died in 1914. On death certificate name is spelled: Ermia Balamatoff; estimated age about 42 at time of death. Died from Pulmonary Tuberculosis which he had for about 2 years. Disease was contracted "probably at place of death" - i.e. Morningside Hospital.
Burial: Multnomah Park Cemetery - Portland, Oregon
Plot: G, 27B, 4

The patient records themselves offer short stories of some of the people and we can read how they spent their time at Morningside through the brief notes on their conditions from year to year. Some worked on the farm that was attached to Morningside, others helped out with janitorial work.

Although the vast majority of the people named in the records are long dead, in order to preserve their privacy, they are only being listed by their initials here.

For example, a man from Ketchikan with the initials J.J. was committed to Morningside in 1910 after “killing his wife.”

J.J. is “paranoidal, erratic, talkative, noisy, inclined to (be) violent. Belongs to the criminal insane. Has imperative impulses. Is resistful, resentful, quarrelsome and dangerous. Physical condition good. Tidy.”

Yet, although his physical condition was good, he died of tuberculosis within a year in 1911. Like most of the Alaskans who died at Morningside, J.J. was buried in a Portland Cemetery and not returned to Alaska.

Another Ketchikan man with the initials T.W was admitted in 1907 with very specific hallucinations.

“A miner. Believes he is being persecuted by J.P. Morgan and others. Threatens to go east and kill his persecutors.”

Although T.W. had similar reports filed about him for the next seven years, he was released to a brother in Portland in 1914. Financier Morgan had died of natural causes in 1913.

In the 1920s, several women from Ketchikan were sent to Morningside, suffering from a variety of illnesses related to syphilis.

During that same period several fishermen from Ketchikan were also sent to Morningside, also suffering from insanity from contracting syphilis.

Given that the 1920s and 1930s were the high water mark for the Creek Street red light district, it appears that Ketchikan officials were using Morningside to handle a public health issue that was being generally ignored otherwise.

A Ketchikan man with the initials H.B. was admitted in 1913 with the following diagnosis “delusional insanity. Much confusion. Persecutory delusions; hallucinations of sight and hearing. History of attempted suicide. Suspicious, depressed. Tidy, quiet and industrious. Physical condition fair.”

His condition did not change over several evaluations but he was inexplicably released a year and returned to Ketchikan.

Another Ketchikan resident, a female with the initials A.S. was admitted in mid-1924 with the following report. “Suicidal, depressed, dangerous, hallucinations, much confusion.”

jpg Never Returning to Alaska: Marilyn Jane Bahnke of Nome, Alaska

Never Returning to Alaska: Marilyn Jane Bahnke of Nome, Alaska
Born Feb. 3, 1943 - Death: May 25, 1961 ( Morningside Hospital )
Alaskan Native. Morningside Hospital patient.
Cause of death: Scalding in a bath tub.
Burial: Greenwood Hills Cemetery - Portland, Oregon
Plot: Section 10, Lot 500

Two months later A.S. was listed as “eloped” which was how Morningside, which apparently did not keep close tabs on its inmates, kept track of people who turned up missing from the facility. According to one report to the federal government in the mid 1930s, Morningside listed 175 patients as “eloped.”

The longer a patient was at Morningside the more likely they would have significant records remaining in federal files. For an example, a young fisherman with the initials H.M was brought in in the 1927 at the age of 18 and lived at Morningside until he died in 1953. Unfortunately, his quarterly reports were unchanged over those 26 years. “Moron. Mentally defective. Feeble minded. Pleasant. Tidy. “

Nothing else seems left of H.M.’s history but dozens of quarterly reports reading the same thing over and over.

Perhaps the saddest story among many sad stories belongs to a woman from Ketchikan with the initials, M.K. She was admitted to Morningside in April of 1907 and released in December of that same year, but that doesn’t tell the story.

According to hospital records, M.K had a “maniacal, depressive type of insanity. Physical condition fair. Very much depressed and suicidal. Shot herself before coming here.”

While at Morningside she remained “melancholic” but otherwise improved physically, meaning she was well enough to be released.

Which was not a good thing, according to her final patient record in December of 1907.

“Placed on parole and turned over to her husband who is in this city, she was a suicidal, melancholic brought about by harsh treatment at her home through her husband. It is feared that the same thing is recurring and that she will lapse into her former state.”

Efforts to determine the fate of M.K. were unsuccessful.



On the Web:

How You Can Help --- Contact

Morningside Hospital Record Archive

The Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act of 1956 (Public Law 84-830) was an Act of Congress passed to improve mental health care in the United States territory of Alaska.

Editor's Note: It became the focus of a major political controversy at the time after opponents nicknamed The Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act of 1956 the "Siberia Bill" and denounced it as being part of a communist plot to hospitalize and brainwash Americans. The debates over this bill were a major factor that eventually led to the deinstitutionalization of the physically & mentally challenged throughout the United States.



On the Web:

Columns by Dave Kiffer

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Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Contact Dave at

Dave Kiffer ©2016


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