Kings Park, New York History
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Research done by Kelly L,
sophomore at Kings Park
Kings Park started out as a really small farming hamlet on the north shore of Long Island, known as Indian Head until Episcopal priest William Augustus Muhlenberg came to town in 1869. Muhlenberg, who had founded St. Luke's Hospital in New York City to help underprivileged and handicapped, was about to realize his dream of having an orphanage and hospital for the mentally ill in a rural setting. After purchasing the 400-acre Smith Farm in northwestern Smithtown and later an adjacent 200 acres, he created the society of St. Johnland to carry out his plans. The result was a self-sufficient community with a church, cottages, and homes for the disabled and elderly and for boys. Much of the acreage was used to grow food and farm. A man named Cornelius Vanderbuilt, from the famous Vanderbuilt family, one of the wealthiest oldest most well known Long Island aristocratic families, donated $22,000 to help this community and for the community to have a home for orphan girls.. The community developed around the complex and was named St. Johnland.
Muhlenberg's complex was the first of several large institutional and social experiments to find home in this little hamlet. In 1872, the year of the Long Island Rail Road arrived - officials in Brooklyn decided to purchase 870 acres adjoining Muhlenberg's tract. Over local objections, in 1885 they established the Kings County Farm to care for the poor and mentally ill. They realized that it would do their mental patients some good to be put in a rural setting, so they built a lot of buildings and a rail road leading out to this town. The town became "Kings Park" because it was considered the park that belonged to the Kings County Psych center.
The new residents, besides the patients in the care of the hospital, were the doctors who cared for them. The doctors and nurses and other people who worked for the Kings Park Psychiatric center brought their families to live with them and that's how Kings Park grew. The mental hospital in Kings Park began in 1885, when Kings county purchased 800 acres. At that time 32 male and 23 female patients were moved into three hastily constructed wooden houses, where the stresses and unhealthy conditions of the city would be alleviated and the curing of the patients would be easier.
By 1892, there were four large buildings and 30 cottages, and there were cafeterias and heating and electrical plants and a dairy to make the facility self supporting. In 1895, Dr. Oliver Dewing waged a successful campaign to get Kings County Farm turned into an official state hospital for the mentally ill, the first such facility on Long Island.
As new buildings went up in Kings Park, so did the patient population. Soon, overcrowding eroded patient care and there were complaints of patronage, waste, and graft. Protests by the medical staff and public spurred the state to take over the Kings Park Psychiatric center as well as the Central Islip facility.
At the turn of the century, Kings Park in just 15 years had grown to 2,697 patients and a staff of 454 - giving the hospital a larger population than the rest of the town of Smithtown. At various times nine out of 10 residents worked at the hospital.
In the early years, about half the employees of the Kings Park, as well as the Central Islip facilities were Irish immigrants. The Kings Park Psychiatric Center prided itself on being a self-sufficient farm community. At kings Park, the three wooden houses grew into more than 150 permanent buildings, including a bakery, laundry, amusement hall, bandstand, library, furniture repair, and a nursing school. Insulin shock therapy was used in1936, and electric shock therapy was introduced in 1940. Prefrontal lobotomies were preformed beginning in 1946. Drug based treatment arrived in the 1950's, starting with Thorazine, and patient populations began to decline. The peak of Kings Park Psychiatric center came in 1954, with 9,300 patients. Since the drug therapy worked so well, there was really no need to have the mammoth psychiatric complexes such as Kings Park and Central Islip anymore. Both of them closed in 1996, and the remainder of the patients went to Pilgrim Psychiatric Center in Brentwood. By 1998 almost all of the patients had been moved out, except for the patients in one building, and many of these patients, while on medication, are givin day passes to walk around Kings Park. If you are a local resident in Kings Park and you spend a good amount of time in the town, you will most likely see some of these patients. These patients that have day passes had to pass a certain test to make sure that they were not dangerous and would not cause any harm to the citizens of Kings Park. By 1998, Kings Park's population was about 16,220
The empty brick hospital buildings left behind seem stark and haunting now, relics of an enlightened age. But former employees say the institutions were pleasant places. King Pedlar, who worked and lived on the grounds for 31 years recalled that "The biggest thing that struck me was that the outside of the buildings had a scary, dismal look, but when you went inside, there was such a cheerfulness. When you're inside, you really don't notice the bars. It wasn't a snake pit sort of place. The whole place was sort of like an oasis.
"That seems to be the story of Kings Park." Smithtown Historical Society Director Louise Hakk said of Kings Park's institutions and social experiments. "The community grew around the institution and the employees settled here."
If you visit Kings Park and just drive around and explore it, you will definitely see some of the old buildings that used to be part of the institution. Personally, I think that the buildings have a spooky, haunting, sort of mystical vibe coming from it, and I think that the old psychiatric buildings are really kinda cool. Over the summer, my friends Pam, Dave, Chris, Rob, James, little Mikey, and Adrian and I spent a good deal of time in this one building right behind our community. It's just a short walk through the woods and then you are there, next to building # 43, and you walk around the right side and there is a fence, if you go into the fence there are a whole bunch of stairs that you go down and there is an open door at the bottom of it. We used to climb through the window of that door actually, and we explored every little room in that place. We found pictures in the attic and they were of the patients! I really had a great time this summer doing that.
Besides the building itself, I learned that there is a field, just beyond where William T Rogers Middle School is, called Potters Field, and that is where the bodies of all of the patients were buried after they died, sort of like a mass grave. There was also an abandoned house that me and my best friend Pamela called "The cool yo house place", on St. Johnland Road. A doctor who worked in the institution a long time ago used to work there.
I used to think that Kings Park was a really boring little town, but now I like it a little more because of the mystery I've found in these buildings. It might sound weird, but if you really get a chance to explore the grounds and the buildings, you'll see why I like that place so much. Oh and a word of caution: Inside those buildings, well, you never know what is in there, so never go in them without a group of people. There is asbestos in there (a chemical in a dust form that can cause a certain kind of lung cancer) and even though you cannot see it, it is in every breath you take, so don't go in there if you have any disorders like asthma. And last, but not least, you most definitely will be stopped and questioned by the police that patrol the grounds. Take it from someone who's been there, DONT give them an unnecessary attitude, or else they really CAN kick you out. Just tell them that you are only passing through. Usually they are polite, so don't get on their bad side.
Well that's about it. Have fun and BE CAREFUL. If you do decide to dedicate some of your time to explore these fascinating buildings, stop, look around, and realize how much has happened right where you are standing. You will then be able to see the magic that I have found in them.
Sophmore at Kings Park High School
January 22, 2001
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