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The life and times of the Ymir hospital

The Ymir hospital was one of the most picturesque buildings of its kind and era. But much of its history is little known.
This postcard of the Ymir hospital is one of three known close-ups of the building

First of three parts

The Ymir hospital was one of the most picturesque buildings of its kind and era. One of several cottage hospitals in West Kootenay, where patients convalesced in a home-like setting, it admirably served the community at a time when local mines were dangerous and injuries frequent.

Despite its peaceful appearance, it was at the centre of controversy when a local newspaper that investigated its operation found itself the target of a union boycott and was forced out of business.

The date of both the hospital’s construction and demise have often been misstated, and until recently its architect had been forgotten. Much remains unknown about its operation, but in this series we’ll present the most detailed history of the building to date.

Ymir actually had two hospitals. We don’t know where the first one stood or what it looked like, but Dr. Herman Keller apparently operated it for three or four years around the turn of the 20th century. It had four beds.

Then the Nelson Daily Miner of May 30, 1901 announced: “Ymir is shortly to have a new cottage hospital, which will probably be built about the beginning of July. The Nelson and Fort Sheppard Railway company, through the vice president, Mr. F.W. Bobbett, have donated two lots for the purpose, and the government grant for the building will be available in July. Mrs. Fahey, the present matron, leaves shortly and will be replaced by Miss Macdonald, of the Kootenay Lake General Hospital.”

The government grant didn’t come through, however.

In October 1902, Spencer Sanderson and Mitchell Tait lobbied MLA John Houston for funding for a hospital to be operated by the Ymir Miners’ Union. They’d raised $3,000 but it wasn’t enough.

A month later, perhaps with Houston’s tacit support, the union pushed ahead. The Vancouver Daily World of Nov. 27, 1902 reported: “Work has started on the Ymir Miners’ Union hospital. Judging from the plans which were drawn by Mr. Ewart of Nelson, the building will be as pretty and complete a cottage hospital as seen in the Kootenays.”

(Alexander Charles Ewart was then a partner in the Nelson firm of Ewart and Carrie. His other works, either solo or with Carrie, included Kaslo city hall, the Ymir public school, and many key buildings in Nelson such as the Hume Hotel, Tremont Hotel, KWC block, and land registry office.)

Over the winter of 1902-03, the situation became dire when the roof of the old hospital collapsed under heavy snow. Details of the incident are unknown, but patients and nurses moved to an old building at the south end of town.

In June 1903, the government provided $2,000 and work on the new hospital at the town’s north end began in earnest, if it hadn’t already. John Burns and Sons, a prominent Nelson firm, was the contractor.

A detailed list of expenditures showed the final construction bill was just under $7,000 (about $186,000 today). In addition to the provincial grant, the union came up with about $2,100 and citizens contributed another $380 — leaving a deficit of $2,500, although it’s not known how this was paid off. One line item among the expenditures read “1902 Hospital, $1,500” suggesting the old hospital was either demolished or renovated.

The few surviving close-up photos of the new hospital show it was three storeys with twin turrets and balconies, surrounded by a picket fence. It was easily the classiest building in Ymir. Heritage consultant Bob Inwood says the building exhibited some marked influence from the Beaux Arts Classical Revival style that was popular at the time.

“The bi symmetry of the dual towers and frontal elevation are typical of this later return to a more subdued approach to the plan and decoration of structures in the latter part of the (so-called) Victorian period,” he says.

“The somewhat Byzantine shape to the turret roofs was also popular in this period. The rather simple surface detailing/finishes allude to the shingle style of the Craftsman movement that was developing concurrently with the Beaux Arts style it was especially well suited for more rural institutions.

“The Ymir hospital presents an interesting adaptation of the staid Neo-Classical to a rustic setting. These were all contemporary design elements that would have been well known to Ewart.”

The hospital formally opened on Nov. 23, 1903 with a reception and dance. There were 15 beds and four private wards, one furnished by the St. Andrew’s Society and another by the Ymir Ladies Guild. The first physician in charge was Dr. G. Edward Duncan.

Health care in Ymir appeared to have taken a giant step forward. But within months, serious questions would be raised about the hospital’s operation.

Next: The boycott

(This story will appear in the West Kootenay Advertiser)