More Information

  • What: Placed above the valley fog and below the Sierra snowline, the grounds near the former Weimar Joint Sanatorium are ideal for year-round walks. Ten miles of trails await you.

    While the paths at the Weimar Institute are primarily for resident students, they are open to the public. Motorized vehicles and horses are prohibited, and dogs must be leashed.

    Services: Also open to the public are Weimar's vegan grocery store, its vegan cafeteria (currently breakfast and lunch only, with brief hours and a set menu), and a 23-room inn, which includes exercise and conference facilities. (Rates range from $55 and $59 for one person to $60 and $64 for two.)

    Getting there: Weimar is about 40 miles east of Sacramento along Interstate 80. Take exit 130 at West Paoli Lane and follow signs north across the freeway overpass before turning east onto the lane leading into Weimar Institute. Parking is available on the grounds and in a lot at the entrance.

    Information: (530) 637-4111, ext. 7010, for questions; (530) 422-7933 for Weimar Inn.

Former TB sanatorium in Placer County awash in poignant history

Published: Thursday, Jan. 7, 2010 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Friday, Jun. 11, 2010 - 4:38 pm

Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King or some other master of the macabre must have planted the notion in my head:

I walk into a cemetery and find my name and birthdate on a gravestone. The date of death is there, but it doesn't matter. The plot is set.

I even know the cemetery where this scenario takes place: an isolated and rarely visited graveyard some 2,000 feet up the Sierra foothills, just outside Colfax.

It's on the grounds of what historically has been Weimar Joint Sanatorium, 450 acres of manzanita, pine and oak whose central cluster of buildings is now Weimar Institute, a campus of Seventh-day Adventists studying religion and health.

Early in the 20th century, numerous sanatoriums and cottages sprang up hereabouts to treat the tubercular. The prevailing view was that tuberculosis could best be treated with fresh mountain air, an invigorating diet and plenty of bed rest.

Opened in 1919 by a consortium of Northern California counties, Weimar Joint Sanatorium became the biggest employer in Placer County before it closed in 1972, with up to 550 patients and a staff of 350 at its peak.

Sixty years ago, I was one of them – a patient, not an employee. I'd been diagnosed with tuberculosis and was taken to Weimar from our family home in Sonora, about 100 miles south.

My thin, pale memories of my time at Weimar aren't to be trusted. I vaguely recall the ward's layout, with my bed near the far end. I remember a screen and projector being set up for movies.

I often heard the whistles of trains starting or ending treks across the Sierra. My parents and family friends visited. The smell of institutional food lingers to this day.

I don't remember, and haven't found in Placer County archives, or in talks with public-health officials, a record of my admittance or discharge.

I have few family records, none of which sheds light on the dates. I was there on Halloween 1949, when a noontime propane explosion and fire destroyed our home in Sonora. I remember the tossing of snowballs – inside the ward, when windows were open, snow was scooped from the sills, and a party ensued.

By that reckoning, I must have been at Weimar for several months. According to a newspaper article from that era, the average stay was eight months. A fifth of the patients died.

My mother, a registered nurse, talked reverently in subsequent years of streptomycin, an early antibiotic used to treat tuberculosis. It had been introduced around the time of my stay and must have played a key role in my recovery.

Beyond that, my parents had little to say of my hospitalization, and perhaps for that I never gave it much thought after I returned to Sonora.

For decades, I'd pass the Weimar exit along Interstate 80 while heading to or from Lake Tahoe, quipping that I'd stop to have a look around if I wasn't afraid I'd find my name on a tombstone somewhere on the grounds.

Not long ago, I was inspired to find out after reading Andrea Barrett's novel "The Air We Breathe," set in a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Adirondacks during World War I. One passage reads:

"The cemetery is a mile north of our central buildings, in a clearing on the other side of the hill, hidden by a border of white pines, never shown to visitors and not mentioned in our rule book. We learn where it is from each other. When, during an afternoon walk, one person shows another the clearing for the first time, it usually signals a new stage in the relationship. After that, we think differently about how long we've been here and what time we might have left."

Weimar's central buildings today include a college in the former children's ward where I was hospitalized, a vegan grocery store called Weimart, a scattering of dormitories, a vegan cafeteria and an inn where I stopped to pick up a trail map.

The grounds include 10 miles of smoothly packed and generally gentle paths. We set off on the peripheral Frontier Trail, which after three miles would bring us to the cemetery. There are shorter and quicker routes, but I was enjoying the slanted sunshine and brisk air that the foothills can provide in fall and winter.

Well-marked and wide, Frontier Trail took us across an old flume, past ponds with migrating or resident ducks, through groves of manzanita and toyon and across a sunny glade. We eschewed "Cardiac Bypass" for the steeper "Cardiac Hill" and were rewarded near the top of the ridge with a bench to recuperate, one of many along the paths.

The hum of traffic on nearby Interstate 80 could be heard at times, but for the most part the trek was a quiet amble through stands of mossy oak trees and looming ponderosa pines. We met only two other people.

Suddenly, we came around a bend and found ourselves in the cemetery, unmarked but for tidy and dark rows of stubby wooden grave markers amid the pine needles, oak leaves and acorns. It looked as if it could have been a Civil War burial ground hastily laid out soon after a battle. The 2-by-6-inch planks, originally painted white, had generally faded to bare wood. According to an old newspaper article, more than 1,400 people are buried at Weimar.

I need not have fretted about finding my name on any of the markers. There are none. The only identification is a numbered medallion, possibly copper, possibly brass, often so tarnished the number is difficult to read.

Some markers are missing the tags altogether, and some have been pulled from the ground or simply fallen over. Here and there, next to an old marker will stand a gleaming headstone of polished granite bearing a name and dates of birth and death, evidence that someone returned to formally salute a long-gone family member or friend.

On another day, I stop by the administrative offices of Weimar. There, preserved in a vault, are four big leather-bound volumes titled "Record of Patients." At last, I sensed, I'd learn just when I'd been admitted – and discharged, plump and rosy.

Unfortunately, there originally were five volumes. The one missing covers the years 1946 to 1954, the era I was there.

The vault also holds the mortuary records, the solemn reconciliation of the numbers on the medallions in the cemetery with the names of the persons under the stakes.

I could have sat down and flipped through the books to see if any name was uncomfortably familiar. But by this time I'd concluded that I had best leave well enough alone.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Mike Dunne

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