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Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum

  
  - darkometer rating:  4 -
 
A former mental hospital in West Virginia, USA, which is not only a massive neo-gothic architectural landmark but also a dark tourism destination: there are tours of the vacant long corridors and crumbling wards and even creepier night tours for those who are into "ghost hunts". 

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

 
More background info: The building is allegedly the largest hand-cut stone masonry building in the USA (and "purportedly" second only to the Kremlin, which I find a little difficult to believe, however). It was erected from 1858 according to the so-called "Kirkbride plan" – after Dr. Thomas Kirkbride, a 19th century pioneer in mental health treatment.
 
His standard layout for the construction of asylums "for the insane" characteristically involved long tiered wings on either side of a central administrative building, allowing for plenty of natural light coming into the wards but also for segregation of patients (according to sex as well as the nature and severity of the different mental illnesses).
 
There are a number of other such asylums across the eastern US still standing (see kirkbridebuildings.com), of which this one is the largest. But the "Kirkbride plan" and antiquated "moral" treatment regime have long been obsolete. Most of the surviving asylums of this type have been derelict since their closure towards the end of the 20th century and too many of these grand buildings have sadly been demolished altogether.
 
The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, then called Weston State Hospital, was closed for good in 1994, after conditions in it had deteriorated and its outdated treatment methods were phased out. At peak times nearly 2500 patients were kept, in poor conditions, in a facility designed to house just a tenth of that figure.
 
After standing abandoned and derelict for well over a decade, the complex was acquired by a private investor a few years ago, who started restoring the dilapidated buildings and began offering guided tours for visitors – and also reverted back to the older name for the place.
 
Restoration work is still continuing – allegedly there are still parts of the wings that need asbestos to be removed (according to a guide at the West Virginia Penitentiary). Eventually more parts of the complex will be made accessible to tourists. For the time being, however, some areas are still out of bounds.
 
 
What there is to see: The building as such is striking from the outside alone – not just for its massive size, also for its neo-gothic beauty. At the centre of the two long wings, each stretching some 650 feet (200 m), stands the jewel in this crown, the tall white clock tower with its needle-like spire, 200 feet (60 m) tall in all.
 
This main building, featuring plenty of pretty stonemasonry artwork, doesn't actually look too creepy from a distance. Only when you get up close can you see that the windows have bars, like a prison. Some of the outlying newer buildings give away clearer signs of what their purpose used to be: you can see cage-like wire-mesh fences securing open recessed balconies and roof terraces.
 
To see the inside, you have to go on one of the guided tours offered. There are currently two standard "Heritage" tours available, one covering only the first (= ground) floor and a longer, and three times more expensive tour of all four floors. In addition, special "photography tours" of the entire complex, including the cemeteries to the north of the hospital grounds proper, are offered on certain days. Furthermore, for those who like to believe in such "paranormal" things there are evening and night-time "ghost hunt" tours available (as a non-believer I would never take part in such things, though).
 
When I visited the place in April 2010 I arrived too early in the day to actually go on one of the regular tours and unfortunately I couldn't afford to wait until the first tour of the day was scheduled to start since I had to press on north to get to the West Virginia Penitentiary in time for the last day tour there, which was higher on my list of priorities. So I can't say anything about the interior of the place from first-hand experience.
 
However, judging from the photos I've seen, it appears that one of those day tours would be very worthwhile, especially for those who get something out of creepy long corridors and crumbling rooms with a grim history. More concretely dark and scary are the medical displays, including electroshock and lobotomy instruments.
 
However, I'm less sure about recommending the special "Hospital of Horrors" show put up at least at one stage a couple of years ago with the help of dozens of volunteer actors in scary outfits with various roles to creep the sh*t out of their haunted-house-inclined clientele (if, unlike me, you're interested in such things, check out wchstv.com/traveling/2008/twv081030.shtml – but I'm not sure whether these special events are still being staged these days).
 
 
Location: 71 Asylum drive, Weston WV 26452, USA. The former hospital is the dominating landmark of the little town of Weston and its grounds cover a large proportion of the town's area. It's hardly possible to miss it when driving through. Weston itself is located in north central West Virginia about 80 miles (130 km) north-east of Charleston, WV and a good 100 miles (160 km) south of Pittsburgh, PA, just off Interstate 79, which connects these two cities.
 
Google maps locator: [39.038,-80.471]
 
 
Access and costs: somewhat remote location, access to the interior by guided tour only; prices vary according to the length and nature of the various tours.
 
Details: to get to Weston you'll most likely need to take the north-south Interstate 79. The town lies just a couple of miles off the Interstate on Route 33/119 (east-west), at exit 99. In the centre of Weston, continue on the 33/119 turning left into N Main St and then right into 2nd St and across the river. The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum occupies the large area to the left and is impossible to miss. You can park by the river and just have a look at the long facade from the outside. To see the inside, you have to go on a guided tour:
 
Times: Regular day "Heritage" tours run daily roughly between mid-March and the end of October, Tuesdays to Sundays (Mondays by appointment only), starting for the simple first-floor-only tour hourly from 12 noon to 5 p.m., and 2-hourly at 12 noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. for the longer all-four-floors tour. On Saturdays, tours start from 10 a.m.
 
Special photography tours (reservation required) are offered on only a few selected dates. The same goes for the 8-hour night-time "Ghost Hunts" – check ahead at trans-alleghenylunaticasylum.com. Shorter (2-hour) "Paranormal Tours" are also offered on selected dates for which you can simply turn up half an hour in advance for registration. Sometimes special events take place; check the schedule on their website.
  
Charges: a reasonable 10 USD for the first-floor-only short Heritage tour, 30 USD for the longer all-four-floors version (including the medical centre – worth the extra cost for this alone). "Paranormal Tours" are 40 USD. Regular "Ghost Hunt" tours are 100 USD (private "Ghost Hunts" can also be arranged for groups of 10 minimum, at 150 USD per head + plus insurance!). Special photography tours are also 100 USD for either the morning or afternoon, or 150 USD for both.  
 
 
Time required: between an hour and a whole day (or night!), depending on what sort of tour you choose. As far as I can tell, the ca. 2 hours all-four-floors "Heritage" tour is probably the best bet for the average dark tourist.
  
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: nothing much in the immediate vicinity, but both the West Virginia Penitentiary and the Greenbrier are only a few hours drive away. Note, however: trying to get from the Greenbrier to the West Virginia Penitentiary via the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston and do the tours at both places is pushing it … as I learned myself when I tried to do this in April 2010 and ended up having to forfeit the opportunity of going on a Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum tour due to lack of time – so you should probably plan ahead better than me and allocate a stopover somewhere in the area rather than trying to do both in a single day.
 
There is a thematically closely linked little dark attraction, which is also closer to Weston by location, namely at the town of Philippi, WV, where there is to be found a rather special curiosity: the two "mummies of the insane". These are indeed real mummies, namely of two deceased patients of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. A certain Graham Hamrick tested his own newly invented embalming potion on these two deceased individuals. It was a success – even in a certain after-life commercial sense, as the two mummies were passed around and even toured Europe as freak circus attractions (P.T. Barnum). After such things had gone out of fashion, the two mummies ended up in an extraordinarily odd place: in the bathroom (sic!) of the Barbour County Historical Museum. Here you can, for a token one dollar fee, ask to be shown the two bathroom mummies. A truly weird set-up, but potentially worth the short stop when passing through the area. Note, however, that the museum is only open seasonally between May and October (phone ahead to check: 304-457-4846). The museum is located near the junction of US 250 and US 119 (the latter leading to Weston) at the historic wooden covered bridge. Address: 146 N Main St, Philippi, WV 26416.  
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Weston may be a rather sleepy little provincial town but apart from the massive former mental hospital it boasts another attraction, which may be less dark but isn't completely out of the realm of the weird either: the Museum of American Glass (at 230 South Main St). It sports all manner of glass objects, especially tacky paper weights, painted tumblers, busts and what not. It requires some very special interest, which I don't share, but I've done my duty by having mentioned it.
 
Further afield, the huge George Washington National Forest stretches out to the south-east of Weston, and to the south beckons the famous New River Gorge National Park (or rather "National River").
 
En route, Highway 19 crosses the river just outside Fayetteville, WV, via a remarkable architectural landmark: a single arch steel bridge 3000 feet (914 m) long and almost 900 feet (275 m) high above the New River Gorge's waters. In fact, the 1700 feet (520 m) long steel arch under the road which it supports ranks as the longest of this type in the world (and the bridge as such the world's third longest single-span steel bridge). There's a car park and visitor centre at the northern head of the bridge – and a walkway leads 200 feet (60 m) down to a viewpoint closer to the foot of the bridge (a strenuous climb back up!).
 
 
 
  • Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum 1 - main front facadeTrans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum 1 - main front facade
  • Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum 2 - main building closer upTrans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum 2 - main building closer up
  • Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum 3 - main buildingTrans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum 3 - main building
  • Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum 4 - annexe with cage-like mesh fencesTrans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum 4 - annexe with cage-like mesh fences
  • Trans-Allegheny Lunatic AsylumTrans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
  

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