Western State Hospital celebrates its 150-year anniversary this month

Contact: Tyler Hemstreet, DSHS Media Relations, 564–201–0027

LAKEWOOOD — Once tribal hunting grounds, a farm and a military outpost, the site of Western State Hospital has a unique and storied history.

Where woolly sheep once grazed across Puget Sound prairies, Western State Hospital now stands. Washington state’s first public behavioral health treatment facility celebrates its 150-year anniversary on Aug. 19.

“I am proud to be a part of the Behavioral Health Administration as we celebrate this historic milestone,” Behavioral Health Administration Assistant Secretary Kevin Bovenkamp said. “This anniversary comes at a time when Western State Hospital is in the midst of making important changes that will help us best serve the people of Washington for the next 150 years.”

Now operated by the Department of Social and Health Services, Western State, which opened in 1871 and is one of the largest inpatient psychiatric hospitals west of the Mississippi with more than 800 beds and 2,500 employees, today stands amid native firs and flowering ornamentals, looking like a college campus.

Euro-American settlement of the prairie land that became the site of Fort Steilacoom and Western State found its start during the early 1840s. The prairie site resided in what was known as the Columbia Department and owned by the Hudson Bay Company, which maintained several forts. Fort Nisqually and Fort Vancouver were in closest proximity, and the trading post Steilacoom was 3 miles from where the hospital is now.

The hospital’s unique history includes the fact it once had its own baseball stadium and fielded its own team. The stadium and grandstand have been replaced with roads and a small set of bleachers, but the baseball field remains on the southwest corner of the campus.

It was also once the site of robust farming operation, which produced everything from beets and radishes to rhubarb, kale and squash. The hospital’s agricultural pursuits also included building new barns and adding a dairy herd to supply milk as well as patient activity. Meat came from hogs and chickens, the latter also providing eggs. At the turn of the century, farm produce provided one-third the cost of subsistence at the hospital. Patients also assisted in the carpenter, tin, and blacksmith shops, and in the laundry and the kitchen. Work became therapeutic occupation for patients. The farm progressed as a set of interconnected activities until farming operations ended in 1965.

Although the farming operations ended decades ago, current patients in the vocational rehabilitation program have opportunities to do agricultural work. They plant and care for all of the thousands of plants, trees and vegetables in the greenhouse. The greenhouse staff hosts plant sales three times a year.

With eyes on the future, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee stood outside Western State Hospital in May 2018 and announced a bold vision that would transform behavioral health care in the state. This spring, Inslee signed a state budget that includes historic investments in behavioral health for the 2021–23 biennium.

The Behavioral Health Administration received $146.4 million for capital projects, to operate small community facilities, design the new hospital building on the Western State Hospital campus and complete other projects throughout BHA facilities.

Over the next several years, the hospital will transform into separate centers of operation to best accommodate forensic and civil patients. This will include the construction of a new 350-bed hospital building as treatment and facilities are modernized to meet 21st-century patient needs.