July 20th, 2018

Heritage in the Hat: The ‘new’ hospital

By Medicine Hat News on April 14, 2018.

Growing up in the 1960s, I often rode the “New Hospital” bus, now simply called “Hospital.” Too young to remember the “Old Hospital,” I vaguely wondered why “New” because for me, the only hospital was the big building on the SW Hill.

Our first hospital was located where the police station now stands. Partially in response to the 1888 typhoid fever epidemic, an early CPR superintendent, J. N. Niblock, was the sparkplug behind its construction. In January, 1889, a 21-member hospital board was elected and it hired local architect Vincent W. Dooley to design the building using local materials, and to oversee the local contractors. The Northwest Land Company donated 12 lots which backed onto the South Saskatchewan River.

Officially opened in 1890, the sandstone building with 25 beds was the only hospital between Winnipeg and Vancouver. It was a huge community effort for the town, population 250. Medicare was unknown and the hospital charged $1.25 a day but that didn’t cover its costs. Nancy, the grizzly bear, penned up at the CPR station in 1893, generated donations of change from passengers of the transcontinental trains in support of the hospital. Just north of the General Hospital, the Lady Aberdeen Maternity Hospital was completed in 1895 to free up beds in the main hospital.

From the beginning, the community contributed linens, food and other articles. In 1894, the Women’s Hospital Aid Society was established to address the needs with Mrs. Clare Niblock as first president. By 1900, the need for a nurses’ residence was identified and the W.H.A.S. stepped up with an initial deposit of $234.15. By 1904, there was a sufficient fund to build and the new Victoria Nurses’ Residence opened in June 1905, adjacent to the hospital (site of the Remand Centre). The ladies of the W.H.A.S. were on hand at the opening, selling lunches and holding a “linen shower.” In 1908, a membership drive recruited 546 members and these generous souls continued to supply the hospital with its sheets and towels.

Not always publicly recognized for their contributions, the “Ladies Aid” membership ebbed and flowed, particularly during both wars and the 1930s. In 1949, the Women’s Auxiliary was re-organized with the support of various other women’s organizations in the community. Since 1987 known as the Hospital Auxiliary Association (men allowed to help!), a proud centennial milestone was reached in 1994 and celebrated with a dinner and ball attended by Lieutenant-Governor Gordon Towers and his wife. The gift shop in the hospital lobby today is part of that long tradition of volunteer service.

In 1955, the foundation stone for the new hospital was laid by Lieutenant-Governor Bowlen and a year later work began on a new nurses’ residence. Since it opened in 1958, the original “new” 60-year-old hospital has expanded several times and the old hospital and nurses’ residence were demolished. Our historic hospital beginnings are now but a memory.

Malcolm Sissons is the Chair of the Heritage Resources Committee. This article relied in part on Hospital Auxiliary Association information provided by Evelyn Stall.

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