Willard: Seneca Lake’s Spooky Ghost Town That was Once an Insane Asylum

Willard: Seneca Lake’s Spooky Ghost Town That was Once an Insane Asylum

Did you know there’s a ghost town on Seneca Lake? This huge piece of prime real estate on the east shore of was once the largest hospital campus for the mentally ill in New York State. And not only New York State, but for many years, it was the largest “insane asylum” in the entire country. Let’s take a tour of this eerie village where — even today — you can drive through it and see the crumbling brick mansions, decaying buildings, shuttered dormitories, locked up outbuildings, old meeting halls, the fenced-in prison. There’s even a morgue and a cemetery with no names.

Stigmatized Property

It’s called Willard, and it’s one of the most wonderful, yet strange and stigmatized properties in upstate New York. It was — and still is — owned by the State of New York, located about mid way on Seneca Lake near Ovid, in the Town of Romulus in Seneca County. It has a few occupied homes now, one major intersection in town and about a mile of lake frontage. You can find Willard on a map and it has its own zip code of 14588.

In this video I’ll give an overview of the history of this psych hospital that started back in the mid 1800s, and today is known as one of the most haunted abandoned properties in upstate New York. It’s located smack dab in wine country where thousands of tourists flock each year, but many overlook it because it’s a little off the beaten path.

How it All Started

Willard Asylum for the Insane was named after Dr. Sylvester Willard, Secretary of the New York State Medical Society, who was appointed to investigate living conditions of the (quote) “chronic and pauper insane” who lived in county poor houses in 1864. His report documented horrific conditions for this population, so in January 1865, Dr. Willard presented his report and the state passed a law to create an asylum to help the people suffering from extreme mental health conditions.

The state already owned this huge property, as it was going to be an agricultural college, but those plans were interrupted by the Civil War.

At that time, Abraham Lincoln was President, and he personally signed off on the proposal for the new hospital facility. And they named it Willard after Dr Willard, who died days before the law was passed.

The Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane opened in 1869.

The First Patient Arrived With Wrists in Chains

The first patient? Mary Rote, described as “demented and deformed”arrived with her wrists in chains on October 13, 1869, coming from the Columbia County Poor House, where she had been without a bed and clothes for years, dressed only with blankets and kept in chains. Others followed, people who’d been locked up for years in various poor houses in similar deplorable conditions.

The philosophy of Willard was a better standard of moral care, and almost every patient’s life improved dramatically. At the time, their treatments and care was considered progressive and humane. Willard provided a protected environment that encouraged patients self-care and, if they were able to, they were assigned some form of work.  They received decent meals, clothing, housing and were encouraged to contribute to the greater good of community.

Willard doctors, nurses and attendants saw dramatic improvements in patients who started pouring in from other facilities. Back then the mentally ill were ostracized and society dealt with them by what we would call inhumane treatment today. But at Willard, their health quickly improved when they were able to explore the grounds and interact with other residents.
By 1877 Willard had 475 acres of property and 1,500 patients, making it the largest asylum in the United States.

Victorian style red brick buildings were built on the growing campus, made from locally-made bricks, many with stunning architecture. Patients were housed in dormitories, with women on one side and men on the other. There was also a violent end and a non-violent end of the campus. A few beautiful mansions housed management and on the outskirts houses and cottages were built for staff and families.
Administration buildings sat in the middle. The land had originally been designated for agricultural purposes, so the hospital ran its own farm tended by patients, growing vegetables like corn and potatoes. It also had a huge Holstein herd for milk production.

In 1890, it was renamed the Willard State Hospital and the staff were considered State employees.

Patients Arrived From County Poorhouses by Steamboat

In those days most patients and staff arrived by steamboat on Seneca Lake, landing at the huge dock.
Patients were encouraged to work at one of the production shops or on the farm. At it’s peak operation there was a greenhouse, corn cribs, bakeries, kitchens, assembly halls, dining halls, a sewing room, a tin shop, a basket-making shop, ice houses, slaughter house, machine shop, a quarry, train station, boat dock, a nursing school, a chapel, and so much more.
A real estate survey done in 1885 reported that the Willard asylum consisted of 929 acres of land consisting of farm buildings, and a main building with wings on either side accommodating 600 patients.
Soon a railroad was built and that brought goods and people in and out of Willard for decades. They named their first railroad station the Asylum, then later renamed it Willard.
Patients were encouraged to participate in various activities like bowling, dance lessons, art lessons, sewing lessons and theatrical performances, among other things. They had steamboat rides, picnics and outdoor concerts. Sports were encouraged and there was an annual field day and parade where the entire community turned out. They even fireworks on the Fourth of July.

Patients were unconfined, able to walk about as they pleased (though unable to leave the premises). There was a bowling alley, a movie theater, and a gym. It was still a hospital though, and there were entire buildings devoted to treatments like electro-shock therapy, ice baths, operating theaters, a morgue and a crematorium.

“Wards of the State” and Not Allowed to Leave

Patients became wards of the state. Sadly, some patients had few or no visitors due to the shame that was common of mental illness at that time, although that wasn’t true for everyone. There was a complex mix of personal situations and every patient had their own story. They may have been considered lunatic, crazy, insane, but today we might consider them as suffering from disabilities, postpartum depression, schizophrenia, PTSD. Many were immigrants, sometimes deformed, coming from extreme poverty and malnutrition.
In the 1900s, things in the asylum started to slide into what a state psychiatric institution could be, and it gradually became a place where unwanted people were abandoned.

Sometimes Willard became a dumping ground for undesirables. A husband could have a wife diagnosed with hysteria and she could be sent there, never to return. Patients’ afflictions ranged from severe mental and physical handicaps to “nervousness,” “chronic” to “acute” insanity, “feeblemindedness,” and “lunacy.”

WWI and II brought staffing shortages, overcrowding, tuberculosis, diphtheria, influenza and typhus. In the 1930s and 40s various patient treatments included insulin shock treatments, electroshock, occupational therapy, musical therapy, hydrotherapy, physiotherapy, and then starting in 1955, drugs were introduced.

Over the course of its history, more than 50,000 patients passed through Willard, half of whom died there. It was common for patients to live out their lives there, never leaving. There’s a 30-acre cemetery with numbers, no names, for the thousands buried there.

As time went by the State changed how it treated the mentally ill. There was an effort to keep them out of institutions, so the population at Willard began to decline. In 1962 there were about 2,500 patients.

In 1974, it was renamed the Willard Psychiatric Center.

Renamed a State Psychiatric Center

By 1977, there were less than 1,000 patients there.
By the time it closed in 1995, there were only 135 patients, and they were transferred to other facilities. Employees were either let go or transferred to other State jobs.

In 1995 it Reopened as a Prison for Inmates With Addictions

That same year, 1995. the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, in collaboration with the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services began using some of the buildings and grounds for a drug rehab facility called the Willard DTC — Drug Treatment Campus. They fenced in a portion of the main campus with razor wire and turned it into a prison. It was co-ed and “voluntary,” but if the felon declined this intensive drug rehab program, the option was up to serve time in a regular State prison.
I’ll have more on Willard’s DTC in another video, as my husband worked there and there’s so much more to tell.
Sadly, Willard DTC closed in 2022, and today, the entire campus sits vacant with some 50 buildings in decay, fenced, locked and falling into eerie disrepair. The property has been reduced to about 400 acres, and you can drive through it if you’re in the area.
When it closed, the Preservation League of New York State claimed it eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic places and it’s also named as one of the “Seven to Save” by the State Historic Preservation Office. But I don’t know what the state is going to do with it, other than keep the massive lawns mowed.

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