#ThisWeekInWyHistory: The Wyoming State Hospital
Photo: Tricia Simpson
In the 130 years since the Wyoming State Hospital in Evanston opened, the institution and the campus have evolved significantly. According to historical materials from the Wyoming Department of Health, “there is no resemblance between the multi-faceted complex of today and the original institution.”
The hospital was officially established as the Wyoming Insane Asylum by the Wyoming Territorial Legislature in 1886.
According to Barbara Allen Bogart in an article for WyoHistory.org, the hospital’s stately architecture and peaceful setting were deliberately created to serve therapeutic purposes for the thousands of patients housed at the institution. Quakerphysician Thomas Kirkbride of Pennsylvania had recently gained support as an advocate for the “moral treatment” of the mentally ill, which he laid out in his 1854 book, “On the Construction, Organization, and General Arrangements of Hospitals for the Insane.”
The “Kirkbride model” called for a country setting for the institution on at least 100 acres. The structure itself should be a fireproof building constructed of stone or brick with a slate or metal roof that would house both patients and staff, with a maximum population of 250 patients. The pleasant surroundings, intellectual amusements, and “rational discussion” would encourage patients to regain their mental balance.
Dr. William A. Hocker of Evanston, who had served in the Territorial Legislature, was named superintendent of the asylum. The first building was a brick, two-story structure housing male patients on the first floor and females on the second.
On May 15, 1889, the hospital welcomed its first patients, transported by rail in a Pullman car from Jacksonville, Illinois, where Wyoming Territory’s mentally ill had been previously housed.
Local jurisdiction over the institution ended when Wyoming’s state government was organized a year later.
Hocker was replaced by Dr. C. H. Solier, formerly the county physician and a surgeon for the Union Pacific Railroad, who was an outspoken advocate of the Kirkbride model. In his 1894 report, Solier asked the Legislature for funds for grading, terracing, seeding of grass, and planting of trees around the asylum buildings.
“The great desirability, in fact the almost absolute necessity of a well-arranged park and lawn around such an institution as this must be obvious to everyone,” he argued. “It is not merely to appeal to the aesthetic tastes of the more refined and cultured, but it is in many cases really curative of mental disorder.”
In 1897, Solier also persuaded the State Legislature to change the name to the Wyoming State Hospital for the Insane.
By the turn of the century, the belief that mentally ill patients were best treated by keeping them occupied with meaningful work had transformed the hospital into a work farm.
Many new buildings had been added by the 1930s, including an ice house, a kitchen and bakery, a dairy barn, livestock barns, a granary, a slaughterhouse, a root cellar, and various sheds. Most of the buildings were connected by underground tunnels. A park consisting of a lawn planted with several hundred trees had also been created.
In 1923, the name of the institution was changed a final time, to the Wyoming State Hospital.
During the Great Depression, the only building added to the campus was the Building for the Criminal Insane in 1935, constructed as a Federal Works Project.
Over the following decades, radical changes in the treatment of mental illness led to equally radical changes at the hospital. These treatments included insulin-induced coma, electroshock, lobotomy, and, after World War II, psychotropic drug therapy.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the rapid development of psychotropic drugs reduced the need for long-term care of the mentally ill. Also, national policy was now calling for community-based outpatient mental health care.
Today, the hospital averages fewer than 100 residential patients and many of the older buildings are abandoned.