Updated: June 17, 2007 at 12:00 am
Colorado Springs is the city tuberculosis built.
Though the recent TB death of a college student from Nepal has alarmed public health officials — and led to widespread testing of people who came into contact with the victim — fear of TB is nothing new here.
Neither is profit. Colorado Springs has a long love/hate relationship with the sometimes-fatal disease.
From the city’s founding, the treatment of TB became a major industry that employed thousands and brought population and wealth into this small frontier town. Colorado Springs, though, never became too comfortable with its role as ï¿½America’s Greatest Sanitarium,ï¿½ as the Chamber of Commerce once boasted.
Medical experts know today that the high altitude, mineral springs and ample sunshine touted to help cure TB probably did little for sufferers.
Still, without TB, Colorado Springs might not have become the city it is today.
ï¿½For 30 or 40 years, tuberculosis was our sole industry,ï¿½ said Matt Mayberry, director of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum. ï¿½We were not a mill town like other communities. That was really the only industry we had.ï¿½
And for a long time, business was good.
From its founding, the men who built Colorado Springs had a vision: an orderly Christian colony where liquor was banned, a college town, a vacation destination, a great place to live.
It also became a great place to die.
Tens of thousands of people came here. Some got better and went home. Others stayed and built homes. Many succumbed to the disease — TB accounted for a third of all deaths here for several decades, at a time when the national TB death rate was one in 10.
Thousands worked in the many sanitariums, whose often wealthy residents brought crucial investment money to the tiny frontier outpost.
The first sanitarium for TB sufferers in the United States opened in the Adirondack Mountains in 1885. Five years later, a TB widow opened Glockner Sanitarium in Colorado Springs, the first in Colorado, where patients could be treated for $1 a day.
The Union Printers Home opened in 1892. Cragmor opened in 1905, the Modern Woodmen of America in 1909. The industry peaked in the 1920s with at least 15 large and many smaller institutions.
The facilities varied in opulence. Cragmor Sanitarium, now the site of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, catered to the wealthy and was reported to be like a cruise ship, with parties that lasted late into the night and its own literary magazine. Others amounted to tent cities on the outskirts of town.
The basis of treatment was the same, though. Lots of rest, sunshine and fresh air. Some had patients living in semiwalled ï¿½tent cottagesï¿½ year-round. Many of the doctors were themselves TB sufferers.
The science was, by today’s standards, questionable.
ï¿½The blood of people living at this altitude is generally thicker than that of people who live at sea level,ï¿½ wrote Dr. Charles Fox Gardiner in 1900. ï¿½Thick blood acts more rapidly to destroy germs than thin blood does and therefore people living here have blood that is inclined to be germ-proof.ï¿½
At the Nordrach Ranch sanitarium, doctors practiced ï¿½disciplined gluttony,ï¿½ believing a fat TB patient was a healthy patient. In Divide, a doctor bought 166 acres to build igloos for patients to live in.
ï¿½It was a placebo. It enabled people to have hope that had been lost to them when they abandoned their homes and families,ï¿½ said Douglas McKay, a former UCCS professor and author of ï¿½Asylum of the Gilded Pill: The Story of the Cragmor Sanatorium.ï¿½
ï¿½So many of the so-called cures were not cures. They simply forestalled the inevitable death from complications,ï¿½ McKay said.
The discovery of antibiotics was years away, and for most doctors in the eastern U.S., the only treatment they could recommend was moving from the smoggy air of the cities to Colorado.
ï¿½Everything under the sun was tried,ï¿½ said Dr. Thomas Petty, a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado. ï¿½This was the most common cause of death at the turn of the century.ï¿½
He said there is evidence that living at higher altitude and getting ample sunshine helps the body generate cells to fight the TB infection, though whether either factor improved survival rates here has never been studied.
The Woodmen sanitarium boasted a 67 percent recovery rate, but such figures are nebulous. The terminally ill were often turned away from the sanitariums, and it was difficult to track recovery from a disease that could linger for years.
Petty sees a greater value to the Colorado institutions.
ï¿½They were putting sick, suffering patients with doctors and nurses who cared about suffering,ï¿½ Petty said. ï¿½They did the best they could and started to make observations.ï¿½
Jeanne Abrams, a Denver University history professor and author of ï¿½Blazing the Tuberculosis Trail,ï¿½ said just offering hope to people improved survival.
ï¿½We know today how important psychology is to healing,ï¿½ she said. ï¿½Many people came out here optimistically, thinking this was the best place to be cured.ï¿½
Plus, the sanitariums provided an even more crucial role — isolation, she said.
Even with the sick isolated, many residents of Colorado Springs never felt comfortable with their guests, known as ï¿½lungersï¿½ or ï¿½hackers.ï¿½
Though such concerns were rarely mentioned in the local press, residents fretted about getting infected. Laws were passed banning ï¿½promiscuous spittingï¿½ and requiring fumigation of houses and rooms of TB sufferers. Some job ads carried the disclaimer, ï¿½No invalids need apply.ï¿½
TB began to be called ï¿½Colorado’s burden.ï¿½
City fathers discouraged public discourse about the risk, because, ï¿½in doing so, we advertise our city as a place where one is more likely to be subjected to such an infection,ï¿½ wrote Health Officer Omer Gillett, in a 1911 report of the Department of Public Health and Sanitation.
But, he argued, by publicly discussing the risks, the city could assuage residents’ fears.
ï¿½It was a divisive issue for many years,ï¿½ said McKay, the UCCS professor. ï¿½There were a lot of people who deeply resented and were frightened by the presence of tuberculosis.ï¿½
Like it or not, though, by the 1920s, Colorado Springs’ future was tied to TB. The Cripple Creek mining industry was collapsing — Teller County’s population dropped from 29,000 in 1900 to 4,000 by 1930 — and the sanitariums kept jobs and new residents here.
By the 1940s, the discovery of antibiotics made sanitariums obsolete. Deaths from TB in Colorado Springs dropped from 168 in 1904 to 39 by 1948.
The last sanitarium closed in 1964, when the Cragmoor — by then occupied by a handful of sick Navajos — was given to brand-new UCCS. The future of Colorado Springs, city leaders said during formal presentation, was in education.
The legacy of TB can be found all over. Penrose Hospital evolved from Glockner Sanitarium. Woodmen Road is named for a sanitarium. The screened porches and small rear cottages at homes in the city’s older areas were built for TB patients.
Less visible, though just as lasting, was the impact of the thousands of people who came here, invested money and made Colorado Springs their home, helping the city to become Colorado’s second city at a time when the boom towns were withering.
In 1901, prominent community leaders wrote letters for a time capsule, which was opened in 2001.
Wrote Dr. Boswell Preston Anderson, one of the pioneering TB doctors, ï¿½The town of Colorado Springs . . . owes its first existence to the invalid class, high and dry elevations believed then as well as the present time to be quite superior and efficacious for pulmonary disease.ï¿½
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