Hiking event highlights Westborough State Hospital’s history

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Historian and longtime Westborough resident Kris Allen holds up a historical photo of Westborough State Hospital during a presentation to hikers before a guided walk through the hospital property. (Photo/Laura Hayes)

WESTBOROUGH – About 40 people gathered on the banks of the frozen Lake Chauncy on Sunday to explore the trails surrounding the former Westborough State Hospital. 

The walk was organized by the Westborough Community Land Trust (WCLT). 

“I think that going out for a walk doesn’t have to be just about getting in your steps and getting exercise,” said WCLT’s Janet Anderson. “That’s a great goal — but also I think it’s a lot more interesting if you’re aware of the land that you’re walking through; if you’re aware of what used to be there once and the people and history that make that land special.”

The walk, which was led by Anderson, explored some of the trails running through the Wayne F. MacCallum Wildlife Management Area, which was originally part of the Westborough State Hospital land.

Historian shares information on hospital

Kris Allen, who wrote about the history of Westborough in her book, “On the Beaten Path,” spoke about the history of the Westborough State Hospital in particular before attendees began their hike.

In total, Allen said there are approximately 1,100 acres on the campus.

Before it became a state hospital, the land was the location of the first state reform school in the United States for juvenile offenders. The school was opened in 1848. By 1858, it hosted over 590 boys. 

The school was later moved to Powder Hill in town.

Hikers walk along trails on the campus of the former Westborough State Hospital. (Photo/Laura Hayes)

Some of the old reform school buildings were repurposed for use by the Westborough State Hospital, which was incorporated in 1884 before admitting its first patients two years later. 

“That was one of the first rehab and reuses in the United States, and it was here,” Allen said.

At its peak in the 1930s, Allen said there were 2,000 patients receiving care at the Westborough State Hospital. 

It was known as a pioneer in homeopathic treatment. The buildings had huge windows to allow the sun to stream in, she said.

Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller, who was the first African American psychiatrist in the country, spent a majority of his career in Westborough, studying how brain tissue changed with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. 

He worked with Alois Alzheimer, who is recognized for identifying the first case of the disease that would eventually bear his name.

“He was never recognized in his lifetime, and his work was never acknowledged publicly until about 2017,” Allen said of Fuller.

The state hospital eventually closed in 2010. The Telegram & Gazette reported at the time that this was due to state budget issues at the time. 

In 2014, the town purchased 95 acres of the site for $2.2 million, including property along the shore of Lake Chauncy. 

The town later sold 37 acres to a developer to construct over 700 55+ housing units. Work on that project is ongoing.

Walk aims to showcase trails

The walk this weekend traversed about three miles of trails. 

Highlighting the history of the property, Anderson said she hoped this event would help more community members get more comfortable with land that remains open to public enjoyment.

Sometimes, when people hike in the area, they stick to trails around the lake and are nervous about going off on the side trails, Anderson said.

“But there are some beautiful trails up there,” she continued. “I feel like sometimes I’m the only one that walks up there, and I thought maybe it’s time to take people off the beaten path and show off the property so that people feel more comfortable coming out later on on their own and walking here.”

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