Hiking events

Walking event highlights history of Westborough State Hospital

Historian and long-time Westborough resident Kris Allen holds a historic 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 shores of frozen Chauncy Lake on Sunday to explore the trails surrounding the old Westborough State Hospital.

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

“I think going out for a walk should be more than just getting in step and exercising,” said WCLT’s Janet Anderson. “It’s a big goal — but I also think it’s a lot more interesting if you’re aware of the terrain you’re going through; if you are aware of what once was and the people and history that makes this land special.

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

Historian shares information about the hospital

Kris Allen, who wrote about Westborough’s history in his book “On the Beaten Path”, spoke about the history of Westborough State Hospital in particular before participants started their hike.

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

Prior to becoming a state hospital, the land was the location of the first state reform school in the United States for juvenile delinquents. The school was opened in 1848. In 1858, it accommodated over 590 boys.

The school was later moved to Powder Hill in town.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He worked with Alois Alzheimer, credited with identifying the first case of the disease that would eventually bear his name.

“He was never recognized during his lifetime, and his work was never recognized publicly until around 2017,” Allen said of Fuller.

The public hospital finally closed in 2010. Telegram and gazette reported at the time that this was due to state budget issues at the time.

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

The city then sold 37 acres to a developer to build more than 700 55+ homes. Work on this project is ongoing.

The walk aims to highlight the trails

This weekend’s walk covered approximately three miles of trails.

Highlighting the property’s history, Anderson said she hopes this event helps more community members feel more comfortable with land that remains open to the public.

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

“But there are some nice trails up there,” she continued. “I sometimes feel like I’m the only one walking up there, and I thought maybe it was time to take people off the beaten track and show the property so people feel more comfortable going out later alone and walking here.”

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