EXIT 15X in NJ: I-95s to Lincoln Tunnel at Meadow Lands, New Jersey
"Up ahead the highway runs up onto elevated pylons along the shoulder of a rocky hill. Even now you may be driving over the bodies of many lost and tortured souls. "
I kid you not... The ground below you was once a graveyard for the un-named and insane. They were deemed beyond the help of even their own loved ones. But more about that later…
Not far from the Holland and Lincoln tunnels which daily belch a hell fire of automobile soot upon the wetlands that were once known as the "New Jersey Dumps", there rises a gnarled and strangulated hill, barren and grey where men once disappeared into a massive lunatic asylum that never would tell their tales.
As Richard Conniff wrote in National Geographic, “In the strange territory called the Meadowlands, just west of Manhattan, a battered volcanic knob of rock juts up from the mudflats and reed thickets. Its history, like its name, is colorful.
Snake Hill was once home to the insane, and prisoners in the county jail here broke up the rock with sledgehammers.
Its solidity once inspired a passing ad man to use “the rock” as the symbol of a great insurance company (though the concept somehow got refined along the way from Snake Hill to Gibraltar).
On a windy evening, this remnant of the Triassic is an excellent spot to sit and look out on one of the weirdest and least reputable landscapes on Earth: the New Jersey Meadowlands. Everybody’s trying to get somewhere else. Rush-hour trains moan and clatter across the wetlands. Trucks on the New Jersey Turnpike roar right through a cut in the rock. A tailwind sends a flight of swallows whipping past and strips back the leaves on the trees so only the pale undersides show.
Still impressive, what you see today is only a fraction of the story. Snake Hill was largely obliterated in the 1960s by quarrying. The rock was used as building material in areas like nearby Jersey City. The soil was used to fill in the graves of so many inmates lost and forgotten.
Today, the remnant of the hill is the defining feature of Laurel Hill County Park. The high point, a 203-foot (62 m) graffiti-covered rock formation, is a familiar landmark to travelers on the New Jersey Turnpike's Eastern Spur, which skirts the hill's southern edge.
Snake Hill was formed by the same intrusion of magma that created the Hudson Palisades. These cliffs are all roughly 200 million years ago. The Dutch colonists who originally settled the area called the 252 foot high bluff 'Slangenbergh' ('Snakes Mountain') because of the many snakes found there.
But for over a hundred years this was a place of insanity and sorrow.
From 1855 to 1962 there were Hudson County penal and charitable institutions on Snake Hill, which was essentially a self-contained city in which hundreds of people lived at any given time. The grounds had its own support facilities that included a sewer system, reservoir, electricity plant and incinerator. The on-site institutions included two almshouses, which provided shelter for the poor and elderly, a penitentiary, quarry and a number of medical facilities, all grouped on the north side of Snake Hill.
In an era of wholesale quarantining, the medical facilities included a Contagious Diseases Hospital, a Tuberculosis Sanatorium, and the Hudson County Lunatic Asylum. The Asylum existed from 1873 to 1939.
When the Asylum opened it had a capacity of 140 patients. Different wings were designated for men and women, and each room held several beds. More feared were the numerous operating rooms where frontal lobotomies were frequently performed to neutralize troublesome patients.
People admitted to the Asylum were not restricted to the mentally ill, and whose conditions ranged from schizophrenia to syphilis. Many people were admitted to the hospital "who had no reason to be there: healthy residents who had been determined by their relatives to be a burden." Residents sometimes signed in their elderly relatives when they could no longer take care of them.
Once committed, these old relatives rarely emerged alive.
It was not difficult to sign in a patient, but harder for one to leave. According to Secaucus Town Historian Dan McDonough, "Anybody could sign somebody in. However, you would need three doctors to sign you out." The causes of death of many patients were not recorded, because the patients had been given pauper's funeral in the potter's field on the grounds, which is known as the Hudson County Burial Grounds.
Society slowly amended its treatment of the mentally ill and indigent. By the late 1920’s Snake Hill was renamed Laurel Hill. Then in the 1930s the Asylum adopted the name Mental Disease Hospital as that was believed to be a less offensive name. At the end of that decade, the hospital was moved to County Avenue in Secaucus, at the location where Meadowview Psychiatric Hospital now exists. In 1939, the Mental Disease Hospital, which by then housed 1,872 people, ceased operations.
In 2003, more than 4,500 bodies of poor people, prisoners and patients were moved from the grounds to make way for the Turnpike's Exit 15X ramp. You may take that Exit now. And do not worry about aggravating avenging angels: all the cadavers of the poor unfortunate inmates of the Snake Hill Asylum have been moved.
Or have they?
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