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In the 1840s Gov. John Motley Morehead was rebuffed in his drive for a state-operated insane asylum but Dorothea Dix was more successful in her appeals to the legislature. The bill passed in 1849 and the institution in Raleigh known as Dorothea Dix Hospital opened in 1856. By the 1870s the facility was badly overcrowded and demand arose for a second state hospital. Leading that effort was Joseph C. Mills of Burke County, a member of the state Senate Committee on Insane Asylums. Through his efforts and those of fellow legislator Samuel McDowell Tate, the General Assembly in 1875 appropriated $75,000 for the construction of an asylum in Morganton. Thus Burke, centrally located in the western half of the state, was chosen as the site for a state agency. In recent years the state has been the county’s largest employer.
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The site selected for the institution, known initially as the Western North Carolina Insane Asylum, was on a hilltop outside Morganton. Retained to design the main building was Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan, noted for his work on mental hospitals. Sloan in time gained several other state contracts, including the Executive Mansion on which he worked with A. G. Bauer. Between 1878 and 1881 appropriations lagged. Gov. Thomas Jarvis in 1882 urged that renewed attention go to the effort. The main building was completed and opened in 1883 under the guidance of superintendent Dr. Patrick Livingston Murphy, who served in that position until his death in 1907.
In 1890 the official name was changed to the State Hospital for the Mentally Ill at Morganton and in 1959 it was named to honor former governor J. Melville Broughton. A series of investigative newspaper stories in 1942 brought to light abuses at the facility leading to an investigation and reform. Today the hospital campus is comprised of sixty-seven buildings on 460 acres of pasture and farmland.
Edward W. Phifer Jr., Burke: The History of a North Carolina County, 1777 to 1920 (1982)
J. Randall Cotton, Historic Burke: An Architectural Inventory of Burke County, North Carolina (1987)
National Register of Historic Places nominations: Main Building (1977) and Historic District (1986)
Public and Private Laws of North Carolina, 1874-1875