James C. Hawthorne | An Asylum and a Boulevard

By Mike Mata ::


Hawthorne Grave Memorial at Lone Fir Pioneer Cemetery

February 15th marks the anniversary of the death of an early mental health pioneer and namesake of the perennially weird Portland street, Dr. James C. Hawthorne.

Hawthorne, a native of Pennsylvania, was purported to have completed his medical schooling at the Medical University in Louisville, Kentucky, although archives from the University of Louisville show no record of Hawthorne as a student there.

Hawthorne found early success in the California Gold Rush. Moving to the Sacramento area in 1850, Hawthorne began a practice there as well as investments in several gold mines. Following this business success, Hawthorne was elected to the California State Senate as a member of the Whig Party. He served two terms as a state senator before leaving for Oregon in 1856.

By 1859, Hawthorne and his business partner, Dr. A.M. Loryea established a hospital in Portland and were reported to be among the first medical doctors to utilize surgical anesthesia.
Following on the heels of this practice, Hawthorne would then shift his focus towards working with mentally ill patients, opening the Oregon State Hospital for the Insane, the first in the Pacific Northwest, with Loryea in 1861.

By 1862, Hawthorne and Loryea won a contract from the state to care for mental health patients at their private hospital. Under a state contract, patients had their expenses at the asylum paid for. These would make up 95% of the hospital’s population.

Asylum patients were diagnosed with a range of issues, including dementia, epilepsy and chronic mania. Patients who died while under the care of the hospital would often be buried at the Lone Fir Cemetery in southeast Portland for $6 per grave. Hawthorne personally paid for the sites of 132 dead patients, as well as the temporary interment of Chinese laborers who died while working in early Portland. In those days, if a laborer from China died while in the U.S., their bodies could be temporarily buried in American soil, but according to custom would have to be disinterred and relocated to China to be buried with their ancestors.

Visitors to the hospital included well-known mental health reformer Dorothea Dix, who was so impressed by the level of care at the hospital that she recommended that the private hospital continue to be the main care center for the state’s mentally ill. Visiting physician Dr. J.S. Giltner also lauded the hospital and Hawthorne’s work, particularly praising the facilities as being clean and well maintained, while also maintaining a balanced diet for the patients and areas for them to have some physical exercise within the hospital grounds.
The hospital was not without some controversy during its time under Hawthorne. Several unknown critics of the asylum accused Hawthorne of keeping patients after they had been deemed cured in order to continue to collect the funding from the state, though this charge would later be dropped.

While he was known for the asylum and is now more famously known for the street that bears his name, Hawthorne was also involved in the construction of the original Morrison Bridge. He worked with Loryea as well as other business partners that included the incumbent mayor as well as the incoming mayor of Portland, to get the construction of the bridge started, though due to legal issues, Hawthorne would die of a cerebral hemorrhage before the bridge was constructed.

Hawthorne’s death occurred this week in 1881 as the result of a cerebral hemorrhage. His grave can be found at Lone Fir Cemetery at Block 8M, Lot 44, 1N.

Want to Learn More? Check Out:

Music used

Intro and Outro: Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Feasting on the Flowers”
David Bowie, “All The Madmen”


Mike Mata, Project Manager
Jeff Stone, Voice of Dr. Giltner
Will Schneider, fact checker and editor
Jeannette Butts, fact checker and editor
Tanya Monthey, fact checker and editor