In the early 1900s, there was no pill or shot you could get to fight tuberculosis, a disease that was rampant among the American population. It was an illness that often killed its sufferers through long years of suffocation as the lungs filled with fluid.
Treatment centers, called sanitariums, sprang up across the country, many in Western North Carolina, and each one established its own combination of remedies.
Highlands Sanitarium prescribed fresh air as medicine, and was constructed with that idea in mind. Known to residents as “the San” or “Bug Hill,” the facility was built in 1908, and was one of many sanitariums in the state. Its main building was surrounded by 60 cottages or “tents”—wood-framed structures with canvas-covered sides that could be raised to allow patients exposure to the mountain air.
The structures were the brainchild of Dr. Mary Lapham, a pioneer in the field of tuberculosis treatment. Her specialization in the pneumothorax method, in which an infected lung was collapsed (opening the cavity) and healed through extended rest, brought patients up the mountain roads in hopes that the treatments could save their lives.
On one cold February night in 1918, the tents did just that. The cold had frozen the main building’s pipes, and townsman Frank Fugate was called in to thaw them. By accident, he ignited woodwork with his torch and soon the structure was engulfed in flames that destroyed it. Luckily, the patients were safe inside their tents.
The fire was the end of Bug Hill. By that time, Lapham had left the San to join a Red Cross mission in Europe when World War I broke out. The sanitarium was never rebuilt.
Salvaging what she could, head nurse Bernie Durgin had 25 of the cottages moved to her family property, which later became a trailer park. The sanitarium was largely forgotten until the park came up for sale a few years ago. One of the tents was still standing on the site, acting as a utility shed.
Trailer park owner Barbara Davis donated the cottage to the Highlands Historical Society in 2006. It has been restored and once again rests on Bug Hill, now a community park, as a testament to the role that the area played in the treatment of tuberculosis.