‘A Lot of People Died Here’: Nopeming Has Embraced Its Identity as a Paranormal Destination

By Christa Lawler, Duluth News Tribune

There is an old, rusted tricycle in a cold, off-limits hallway of Nopeming. Lit by flashlight or phone, it’s a creepy image — like something from a horror movie — in an abandoned sanatorium that doesn’t have electricity, running water, heat.

There is not specifically supernatural about its placement. Its presence is explainable: In recent years, people have come and people have gone and there have been children on the property.

However: sometimes the tricycle moves. Not from here to there in front of an audience. In some photos it faces one direction and in others it’s further down the hall or facing a different direction.

Nopeming project director Tanya Graysmark isn’t going to make a haunted-or-not call on it.

“It’s up to your imagination whether it’s a person or a paranormal thing,” she said during a recent tour of the facility located on about 40 acres off Interstate 35’s Midway Road exit.

It has been about a year since Nopeming started offering tours as a way to raise money for much-needed repairs. It’s keepers from Orison Inc., a nonprofit organization, want to make it safe, fix the roof, turn it into a usable space.

From left: Maira Zaheer, a foreign exchange student from Pakistan, Annie Milliron of Cambridge and Alicia Tipcke of Stillwater, explore and take photos in the rooms once occupied by residents at the former Nopeming Nursing Home on a Friday Haunted Halloween tour. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

The sanatorium was built in 1912 as a remote place for people who had been diagnosed with tuberculosis. In the early 1970s, it became a nursing home that was ultimately shut down in 2002 because of financial problems. It had been vacant for many years and a destination for trespassers, some who vandalized the property. It was briefly owned by a Twin Cities businessman who eventually went to prison for his role in a Ponzi scheme.

Orison, Inc. took over ownership in 2009 with an eye toward turning it into a charter school.

In the meantime, it’s a destination: In addition to a historical tour and a night tour, this time of year they offer a haunted tour that plays on the facility’s history.

The appeal is obvious to Graysmark.

“This is a sanatorium,” she said on Friday morning. “A lot of people died here.”

The Haunted Halloween tour group look around the former auditorium in the former Nopeming Nursing Home Friday morning. Like much of the building, it is in a state of disrepair. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

Ghost girl

The most popular ghost at Nopeming is a 9-year-old girl, believed to be from the sanatorium era. Missy Febus, of Paranormal Research Minnesota, said attendees of her group’s 4-hour, late-night paranormal investigation classes — held this month at Nopeming — have heard the sound of a little girl giggling. There might be a photograph of her: a sheer image seemingly in a long gown in the same hallway as the tricycle.

If it’s real: “It’s a really, really cool picture,” Febus said.

A tricycle in the administration hallway at the former Nopeming Nursing Home is said to move from place to place though no one touches it. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

On Sunday, Febus was fresh from an investigation the previous night where no one had physically encountered the little girl.

“But we think we spoke with her,” she said. The investigators hadn’t yet gone through their recordings, which detect things not accessible to the naked ear, to determine if the ghost reveals her name or her association with Nopeming.

When the team from “Ghost Adventures” visited Nopeming for an episode of their Travel Channel series in 2015, they were fueled in equal parts by an on-site murder suicide — a man killed an orderly and himself on Mother’s Day in 1940 — and Native American spirits.

The episode, which is available for streaming online, includes disembodied voices, the ghost hunters’ physical response to the space and various door slams and tugs from unseen forces.

A tour group walks around the former Nopeming Nursing Home before entering to explore its halls. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

The lure of Nopeming

A crew of independent filmmakers recently spent a few months at Nopeming making a horror movie scheduled for a 2018 release. A few props remained on-site during a recent tour.

Riki McManus of the Upper Minnesota Film Office said Northern Minnesota has become a destination for creatives working in this genre. She is charged with scouting locations with filmmakers. Nopeming has become a go-to stop.

“What’s the spookiest place you know,” she asked, rhetorically. “There are areas where the hair on my neck comes up. As a location for a spooky movie, people are really pumped about it.”

“Older than America,” a 2008 suspense-drama about the effect of Native American boarding schools, was filmed in part at Nopeming.

A colorful flower and fruit painted design is still intact on the peeling walls of the old craft room at Nopeming. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

A recent daytime tour drew a mix of people whose pasts were entwined with the facility, whether a family member had worked or died there. Others were into history, architecture or the paranormal.

The tour started with a walk around the grounds, wound inside the building to an old chapel, patient rooms, the notorious hallway, and the auditorium. Without heat, the temperature drop inside the facility is significant. Without electricity, visitors relied on cellphone flashlights. Without water, there were portable bathrooms available.

Many participants in the Nopeming Haunted Halloween tour were fascinated by the “red hand” on a wall visible behind a door in the main building. In the center is the reflection of a participant taking a picture. The origin of the hand is more mundane than imagined: it was put painted during an unauthorized Halloween party several years back. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

Peeled paint hangs in flaps from the walls and like fringe from old pipes. Ceiling tiles have fallen, or dangle between beams. A stage is inches thick with dust, dirt and debris. A toilet is muddied and rusted. Walls are scarred with cracks. A tunnel between the main building and the steam room is no longer accessible. The iconic chimney — visible from the interstate — has tilted to a dangerous degree.

It has become more cost effective to board up the windows than replace the ones broken by trespassers, Graysmark said.

Crystal Detlefsen of Duluth takes a picture of several of the original beds in the former Nopeming Nursing Home now set up in the former craft room during the Haunted Halloween tour. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

If the facility’s history doesn’t freak out a visitor, the black mold, asbestos and lead-based paint chips might.

Maira Zaheer, an exchange student from Pakistan now living in St. Paul, was drawn to the tour because of her interest in horror and the paranormal.

“I’m so interested in things a human eye cannot see,” Zaheer, 16, said.

Nopeming did not disappoint. Just beyond the caution tape, she witnessed an imprint of a human hand. It was just the kind of thing she said she had hoped to see.

IF YOU GO

What: Nopeming Haunted Tour

When: Continue Friday-Tuesday

Where: Nopeming Sanatorium, 2650 Nopeming Rd., Duluth

Tickets: $30

Also: Nopeming has historical day and night tours.

What: Nopeming Paranormal Investigation Class

When: 9 p.m. Friday

Where: Nopeming Sanatorium

Tickets: $140

For more info: nopeming.com

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