top of page
  • Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine

Napa State Hospital: The Early Years

In September 2014, we planned a Book Launch on the Napa State Hospital book that had just been published. That same month, we planned to open an exhibit in the Goodman Library on the State Hospital. The 2014 Earthquake intervened and prevented us from hosting the exhibit as planned. The exhibit is open at the Goodman now and will remain on display through January. In this article, we focus on the early years of the hospital, its founding principles, staff, and patients.


The first asylum for the insane in California, the Stockton Asylum opened its doors in 1851. Unfortunately, within 20 years the institution became desperately overcrowded. Thus, during the 1869-70 term, the California State Legislature passed an act enabling Governor Henry Huntley Haight to appoint Dr. E.T. Wilkins as a commissioner to research existing asylums in

the United States and Europe to gather ideas and plans to build the second state asylum.

In 1871, Dr. E.T. Wilkins, Dr. Benjamin Shurtleff of Stockton, and Judge C.H. Swift of Sacramento were appointed to select a site for the proposed asylum. The trio issued a report that recommended a site at Rancho Tulocay, owned by Don Cayetano Juarez, due to its arable land and healthy water supply, as well as its proximity to the railway and Napa Embarcadero (wharf). In 1872, approximately 200 acres of land were purchased from Juarez for $11,506. In 1873, Wright & Sanders of San Francisco were awarded the contract for the asylum, a building which was to be “constructed of either brick or stone that would accommodate at least 500 patients—cost not to exceed $600,000.”

Building construction began in 1873. Building materials included Vermont slate, Colfax marble, and bricks manufactured on-site. The three to five story building was composed of one main “castle” and two identical wings. There were a total of seven towers, four of which were used to store water for the facility’s gravity-flow elevator system, as well as fire protection. The building was allegedly a mile

in circumference.

There was much political controversy surrounding the cost of the building. Democrats argued that the building was needlessly extravagant and expensive, and Republicans defended the cost as necessary to create a healthy environment for the mentally ill. The final cost of the building has been variously recorded as anywhere between 1.25 and 1.75 million dollars.


The Napa Asylum for the Insane, as Napa State Hospital was called until 1924, had 89 employees by the 1890s. This included one resident physician, two assistant physicians, one secretary, one steward, one male and one female supervisor, one matron, one dispenser, four cooks, one secretary, four laundry workers, one seamstress, and 40 male and 30 female attendants.

During its early years, staff lived in the same units as their patients, two to a room. Women who worked at the asylum were usually young, single, or widowed. The asylum offered ideal job opportunities for women, due to the lack of education requirements and emphasis on domestic skills. Male staff tended to work as doctors, farmers, laborers, or security personnel. By 1901, 200 individuals were employed at the hospital. The payroll was more than Napa County’s entire state tax bill, indicating that the hospital had a significant economic and social impact on the community.

At the start of the 20th century, although men and women did the same amount of work, men’s pay was $30 for the first six months while women’s pay was $25 (women’s pay was progressively always $5 less than men’s). Attendants worked from six in the morning until nine at night, for six and a half days a week, with only one full day off each month. As recently as 2006, the Napa Register reported that Napa State Hospital, with its staff of 2,300 people, was one of the county’s largest employers.

In 1946, recognition of Napa State Hospital as a teaching center began with its approval by the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association for the training of psychiatric residents. The hospital was also the first in the west to be accredited as a clinical pastoral

training center for theology students and ministers.


The Asylum’s first patient was a gentleman from San Francisco who was admitted on November 15, 1875 for alcoholism. The Napa Asylum for the Insane began taking patients from the overcrowded Stockton Asylum in 1876. By the 1890s, the Napa Asylum had grown well beyond its original capacity. The hospital held 1,373 patients in 1891, which was more than double its original footprint. To address the issue of overcrowding, Superintendent E.T. Wilkins sought funds from the state of California to convert the attic spaces into dormitories to house more patients.

The Napa Asylum treated patients for a variety of ailments. Many of the early residents were admitted due to alcoholism or homelessness. Women admitted at the end of the 19th century were often diagnosed with acute mania, melancholia, or paranoia. The hospital treated everything from epilepsy, paralysis, and syphilis, to jealousy, masturbation, and even disappointment in love.

In the early years of the hospital, work therapy was used as a common treatment for patients. The routine and predictability of asylum life were thought to aid patients, with the added benefit of bringing profit to the Asylum. During the 1910s and 1920s some prevalent treatments included hydrotherapy, sterilization, and malaria fever therapy. Between 1936 and 1949, electroshock therapy was first used in American hospitals to treat mental illness. Walter Freemen and James Watts developed a prefrontal lobotomy procedure, which was widely performed throughout the 1940s. In the 1960s, the approach to mental healthcare began to emphasize reintegrating patients into their communities, through the use of therapy, social activities, and work therapy.

E. A. Burbank

Elbridge Ayer Burbank was an American artist born on August 10, 1858 in Harvard, Illinois. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and in Munich, Germany. Burbank is most well-known for his sketches and paintings of Native Americans. As an adult, Burbank was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, at the time known as manic depression, and was treated at Napa State Hospital from 1917 to 1936.

During Burbank’s time at Napa State Hospital, he was allowed to venture off the hospital grounds in order to sketch things that interested him. He befriended Owen Duffy, manager of the State Farm in Yountville, during this time. Mr. Duffy described Burbank as a “genius and mistaken for insanity”. Over the years, Owen Duffy and E. A. Burbank became close friends. Three of Burbank’s sketches in this exhibit display Burbank’s interest in the scenery at Duffy’s State Farm.

Napa State Hospital Exhibit

Now through the end of January

Visit our Napa State Hospital exhibit to learn about the history of the hospital and its place in Napa and California history.

At the Goodman Library, 1219 First St. Napa Mon., Weds., & Thurs. 10am to 4pm

bottom of page