Topsail Hill Preserve State Park is a Florida state park located in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It preserves the site of Camp Murphy Mountain Camp Sanitorium and Psychiatric Hospital as well as the Seven Sisters Mountain peak. The camp was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2020.
Pets are not permitted within the facility. Amenities include hiking trails, picnic areas, and a nature museum featuring interactive natural history exhibits. There is no swimming beach at the park.Parking fees are $8/car per day. Annual passes can be obtained at any park information office. The park is open from 8:00 am till sundown year round. Visitors needing a parking pass for their vehicle should use the QR code system as there is no longer a traditional permit station. Camp Murphy Mountain Camp Sanitorium and Psychiatric Hospital was established in 1939 just prior to World War II. At the time, little was known about combatting post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but veteran advocates were already calling for more attention to be paid to veterans returning home from war. With the onset of the conflict, the federal government began development of what would become the nation’s first network of psychiatric hospitals designed specifically to treat soldiers suffering from PTSD.
One such hospital opened in 1942 near Charleston, South Carolina, named the Strom Thurmond Federal Hospital for Veterans with Psychoneurological Disorders. Named after Senator Strom Thurmond, the hospital treated nearly 2,000 patients in its first year alone, most of them African American WWII veterans. Although initially successful, problems soon arose due to a lack of maintenance and supplies. Patients slept on cots in unheated rooms, ate bland food, and received minimal care. In 1944, the hospital administrator, Colonel Charles C. Johnson, Jr., admitted to Congress that conditions were substandard and promised improvements. Despite these promises, the facility continued to deteriorate and faced closure in 1945. That same year, however, President Harry Truman announced plans to build new military installations in Europe, which required private contractors to provide temporary housing. In response, the VFW formed the Committee for the Preservation of the Fhvpe, better known as the Camp Murphy Group, whose mission was to save the hospital from closure.
Led by Majors Richard H. Lewis and William B. Travis, both Army psychiatrists, along with contractor representatives Frank Moulton and George Kegley, the group raised enough money to keep the hospital open through 1948. Improvements made during that period included installing air conditioning units, adding barracks to the staff quarters, landscaping, and constructing a playground. Further efforts resulted in the opening of a recreation hall, bathhouse, and snack bar. Still, patient complaints persisted, ranging from poor living conditions to inadequate staffing. In addition, many of the hospital’s doctors believed it lacked the proper facilities to properly treat the complex psychological disorders they saw among the troops. As a result, fewer than half of the hospital’s beds were filled each night, and thousands of vacant spaces stood unused around the grounds.
In 1955, the facility was renamed the Veterans Administration Topsail Island Mental Health Center. This name change did not resolve the issue of how to house the increasing number of veterans with serious emotional disorders. Once again facing closure, the Camp Murphy Group once more rallied and succeeded in getting the facility designated as a regional center instead of a clinic. It also pushed hard for full service status with the VA, which was achieved in 1959. However, even with all these improvements, conditions remained unsatisfactory. More than ever, the need for treatment facilities dedicated to the special needs population grew. Many local citizens showed their support by sending letters and making personal calls to Washington, D.C., where they lobbied heavily to keep the hospital open. Their pleas seemed to have worked, as the Nixon White House backed down and agreed to fund a replacement facility. Groundbreaking took place in April 1970, and the new hospital opened three years later.
Named the Tidal Basin Community Hospital, it provided primary medical and surgical care for veterans with service related injuries and illnesses. But even this facility could not meet the demand, and additional space became available across town at Naval Station Key West. Those patients requiring extended stays were transferred to Tidal Basin, which struggled financially and went bankrupt in 1974. Shortly thereafter, the property was sold back to the county for non-profit operation as a county park. Today, only seven of the original 44 buildings survive. Five are fully restored and open to the public, while six others are partially restored and still used by the VA. Only one building, Building 43, the superintendent’s residence, has been demolished so far, though demolition of the other 46 structures is planned to begin in 2021.
Built between 1947 and 1957, the buildings reflect different architectural styles popular at the time, including Mediterranean, French Provincial, Modern, and Ranch. Examples of the latter style, often referred to as the ranch house, can be found scattered throughout the property, built by local architect Joe Raiola, a decorated former prisoner of war himself, who earned his freedom by designing and supervising construction projects for the WPA during the 1930s. His design influences appear evident throughout the camp, particularly in the distinctive cupola tower atop Building 20, which houses the main mess hall. Other notable features include large oak trees growing out of concrete slabs, a reflection of the early success of tree planting to beautify and stabilize run down properties during the New Deal. Hikers may enter some of the buildings to access the roofed, open air pavilion, which offers views of the entire preserve.
In 1935, two years after the original 13 sisters had left the facility, it became the Veterans Administration (VA) Topsail Island Mental Health Center. During its time, it served veterans of World War II and Korean War veterans with mental health issues. After serving for almost 40 years as a VA hospital, the center fell into disrepair until it was purchased by Broward County in 1998 to be converted into a state park. Opened in 1939, the facility was originally called Camp Murphy Mountain Camp Sanitorium and Psychiatric Hospital. Its name changed in 1943 to honor Major General Edward R. Murphy who died that year.
A second change of name occurred in 1946 when it became the South Atlantic Veterans Administration Medical Center. By 1960, the name again changed this time to Tidewater Regional Psychiatry Program before finally becoming the Topsail Island Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Throughout these various names, the facility remained largely unchanged. When it closed in 1995, it consisted of 44 buildings and covered an area of 237 acres (96 ha). Of those 44 buildings, only seven remain standing, including the administration building, which serves as the park visitor’s center; four are completely restored and open to the public while another six are partially restored and still used by the VA. Only one building has been demolished so far, that being Building 43, also known as the “Hospital Superintendent’s House” since vacated in 1996.
Demolition of the other 46 structures is scheduled to take place over several months beginning in 2021. On May 17, 2020, the Topsail Hill Preserve State Park was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places under the title of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park – Camp Murphy Mountain Camp Sanitorium and Psychiatric Hospital Site. According to the nomination form, it meets the criteria for designation because of its association with veterans’ services during World War II and the Korean War, and because of its architecture. It includes eight contributing buildings, five contributing sites, and 11 contributing structures. Visitation at the park is restricted to those 12 years or older.
Activities available include:
- mountain biking
- wildlife viewing