CRESSON - Life as Chuck Felton knew it hit a wall in 1955.
He was 17 - a varsity basketball player and his high school class president. He was a young man with plans to attend Penn State University in the fall when he learned he had tuberculosis.
For Felton, the deadly lung infection meant 16 months at Cresson Sanatorium - much of it quarantined to a hospital ward in pajamas, a bathrobe and slippers.
Chuck Felton (top) created a Web site for former patients and workers at the Cresson Sanitorium to reconnect. Doctors (center) read X-rays of patients in 1945. At bottom is an aerial shot taken in 1960 of the massive facility. (Mirror photo illustration by Tom Worthington II/courtesy photos)
It meant weekly regimens of pills, shots and sometimes, watching those around him die.
But Felton also met some of the best friends he's ever had, he says, spent time as a hospital disc jockey and left the sanatorium with an "I can get through anything" outlook on life that he carries with him to this day.
When he set up a Web site
A look back
1911: Andrew Carnegie sells land to Pennsylvania for $1 to develop a tuberculosis center.
1913: Cresson Sanatorium opens in January.
1922: First X-ray equipment purchased.
1932: Children's House with 122 beds opens for children.
1950: Children's House closes, becomes additional unit for patients, occupational therapy department founded.
1951: Renovations made to units, campus.
1952: Tuberculosis prevention drug Isoniazid first used for treatment.
1956: Facility renamed Laurence Flick State Hospital.
1964: With tuberculosis vaccines now common and illness a decreased threat, site becomes Cresson State School and hospital.
1983: Hospital closed; property transferred to state Department of Corrections for prison.
in the generations-gone sanatorium's honor last year, www.feltondesignanddata.com/
cressontbsanatoriumremembered, he found others who had the same fond feelings from their stays at the center.
Today, Felton's site is attracting hundreds of hits daily, sharing stories of Cresson's past.
"I just put the site together, basically for myself and my family. I wanted my two children to see it, because it was a part of my life they didn't get to see," said Felton, 72, who now lives in Lakehills, Texas. "I didn't realize the impact it would have."
His story begins in 1955.
He arrived in April after a bad January cold lingered in his lungs. X-ray results delivered the news, Felton says, and he was pulled from Towanda High School despite being only a few months from graduation and sent to the sanatorium's west wing ward.
Often confined to his tiny living area, he ate meals at a nightstand, listened to Pirates baseball games in bed, and for a few hours a day, was able to sit on the porch with friends to soak up Cresson's mountain air.
"Pajamas were my uniform. I went from being in school working on the graduation committee to spending most of the day in bed," said Felton, noting the sanatorium had strict "bed orders" several times a day - and lights out at 9 p.m. "The rule was basically 'don't stand if you can sit, and don't sit if you can lay down.'"
"It was all about getting your lungs as much rest as possible."
He also "got air" weekly. It was a common procedure then, he said. A needle pumped air into his abdomen, expanding and contracting his lungs to strengthen them.
But Felton made the most of his time, playing card games and checkers with other patients his age and reading classics like Treasure Island.
In the all-male dorms, he was joined by patients from all walks of life. Many were middle-aged men with families at home.
"We were all fighting a common enemy - tuberculosis. And you knew some wouldn't make it out alive," said Felton, who compared those days to being in a military barracks.
That was his life for a year before test results showed tuberculosis appeared to be gone from his body.
Four months of clean tests meant he could move into another section of the sprawling sanatorium campus. Folks called it "making meals." There, he was finally back in street clothes, joined by both men and women, and given a job.
He worked three hours each morning stocking shelves at the company store.
"Three hours," he recalled, "was tough after spending a year in bed. But that's what they were doing; they were getting you back on your feet again."
He also worked for several months at the hospital's small one-room radio station in the ward's basement, where he spun the era's top hits.
"The sanatorium was like a little city," said Felton, noting the campus included 30 buildings at one point, including its own power plant, a dentist office and shops.
Initially opened in 1913 on 500 sprawling acres of land donated by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, it was one of three Pennsylvania sanatoriums, records show.
At its peak, 900 patients called it home at any one time. A work force of 1,200 kept it running. Some spent the rest of their lives at the site, but Felton was able to leave the sanatorium after 16 months.
As a tuberculosis survivor, he qualified for a state scholarship that paid his way through Penn State, where he graduated with an engineering degree at 24. Afterward, he landed a job with Douglas Aircraft in California, where he worked 38 years.
He raised two children, and has been living with his wife of 25 years in Lakehills, Texas, since retiring a decade ago.
"I guess I was fortunate. I've had a good, active life," Felton said. "I made it out and I moved on. My health has been fine."
That 16 months "put the rest of my life into perspective, though," he said. "I realize there was no reason to sweat the small stuff because I'd probably been through the worst I could imagine."
But it was the good times that pushed Felton to upload his memories onto a Web site last year.
To his surprise, other survivors felt similarly.
Many, among them former workers and families with ties to the campus, were eager to share stories.
"It just exploded. The Web site's not about me anymore. It's kind of a memorial to the sanatorium and those who spent time there," said Felton, rattling off stories about other young people who spent time in the sanatorium, several of which he's posted on his site.
Gail Seabolt, 85, of Cresson worked several stints at the sanatorium as a nurse from 1944 until it became a state school in the mid-1960s.
She recalled patients staying at the sanatorium for four or five years and longer.
In many cases, staff and patients became like family, she said.
"It might as well have been a town back there," said Seabolt, recalling fond memories of the campus's movie house, bake shop and creamery. "There are a lot of good stories from those days, and it was a good era for Cresson."
But she and Felton noted there were also heartbreaking stories, too.
Felton recently posted a story about three siblings' stay at the center's "preventorium," a ward for children who were believed to be at risk of contracting tuberculosis. They spent years there away from friends and family, he said.
"The stories are just amazing," said Etta Albright, a Cresson Area Historical Association member. "The sanatorium was a response to a communicable disease that had devastating effects on society but it was also a community in of itself."
Felton's site and a renewed interest in the sanatorium have the historical group mulling the idea of a 100th anniversary commemoration in 2013.
The idea is in the earliest stages, though and would need local support, she added.
But Felton loves the idea and has been using his site to gauge interest in a sanatorium reunion.
"To me, that would be great. After all of these years, how unusual would that be," he said. "If I'm still around, I know I'd want to be there for it."
The sanatorium itself is decades gone. It was remodeled into the Cresson State School and hospital in 1964 before closing years later.
What remains is now part of the State Correctional Institution at Cresson.
The stories live on, along with fond memories of Cresson's mountain terrain, Felton said.
"That's the one thing everyone agreed on - the beautiful scenery we soaked up every day," he said of Cresson, recalling days on his ward's scenic back porch. "It was such a beautiful place - just intoxicating. We thought Cresson was a part of the cure."