Ymir hospital met a fiery end

Finding staff for the Ymir hospital was always a challenge and turnover of doctors and nurses was high.

This postcard shows the Ymir hospital on the north edge of town (circled). It opened in 1903 and burned down in 1930. Today it’s a vacant lot.

This postcard shows the Ymir hospital on the north edge of town (circled). It opened in 1903 and burned down in 1930. Today it’s a vacant lot.

Last of three parts

Finding staff for the Ymir hospital was always a challenge and turnover of doctors and nurses was high. Ads like this frequently appeared:

“WANTED — At the Ymir General Hospital, a duly qualified doctor and surgeon. For full particulars write to W.B. McIsaac, secretary Ymir General Hospital, Ymir BC.”

But the community did have a few long-term and notable medical personnel.

• Dr. Herman Louis Arthur Keller (1860-1919) arrived from England in 1895 and established himself in Rossland. He moved to Ymir by 1898 and operated a four-bed hospital. After briefly returning to England, his family went to Kelowna, where he established a limited practice. He built a house and medical office in 1902 which still stands — the only remaining home from the original Kelowna townsite — although in 1908 it was moved to a new location.

Dr. Keller’s son Rodney joined the military and commanded the Canadian 3rd Division during the Normandy invasion of 1944, despite being criticized as unfit.

• Dr. George Edward Duncan (1870-1947) began practicing in Ymir around the fall of 1899 — his time there appears to have briefly overlapped with Dr. Keller’s.

Dr. Duncan worked at the old Ymir hospital and was in charge of the new one when it opened in November 1903. He performed the post-mortem exam on a miner named Alex McDermid, killed in a fight, and testified at the murder trial of Murdoch Campbell, who was acquitted of the crime.

Dr. Duncan resigned from the hospital in April 1904, along with the matron and a nurse, during a controversy over finances. But the Ymir Mirror wrote: “He has ever enjoyed the entire confidence of his patients who all bear testimony to his skill.”

In 1927, at age 55, Dr. Duncan married Dora Ellis, a nurse 30 years his junior, in West Vancouver. He died a few months after poor health forced him to retire.

Dr. George Edward Rehberger (1880-1971), from Baltimore, worked in Ymir from at least 1912 to 1915 and signed the death registrations of seven people buried there, three of whom died in the hospital.

He served in the Spanish American war and US medical corps during World War I, and wrote two books, Lippincott’s Quick Reference Book for Medicine and Surgery (1926) and The Mind: A Key to the Interpretation of Physical Phenomena (1931).

• Charlotte Nicholson (1856-1942) was matron from about 1918 to 1925. We don’t know much about her, except that she married William T. McDowell, manager of Ymir’s Yankee Girl mine.

If they hadn’t already met, they became acquainted in 1918 when McDowell was taken to the hospital after breaking his leg at the mine. They wed in Wenatchee, Wash. in 1926 and moved to Alameda, Calif.

• May Williston Smith was a nurse in Ymir until her 1904 marriage to Royal N. Riblet of the Riblet Tramway Co. She was the second of Riblet’s seven wives and bore him two children before her death of tuberculosis in 1909. She’s buried in Nelson.

• Wesley Byron McIsaac (1852-1926) of the Ymir Miners’ Union was the hospital’s secretary for 15 years. He was buried in Ymir.

(A list of other doctors, matrons, and nurses over the years can be found at bottom.)

Until the end of 1903, Ymir saw 45 registered births, none of which would have been in the new hospital. Dr. Duncan attended 31 of them and Dr. Keller another four. On Dec. 13, 1901, Dr. Duncan delivered three babies in one day, including a set of twins. (A list of those births can be found at bottom. Births from 1904 onward won’t be made public until 2025.)

We know of several later births in Ymir, including four that actually took place in the hospital: Fred Norcross (1905), Royal Read (August 1908), Evelyn Emilson (July 1922), and Perry Anderson (February 1923). Emilson — now Evelyn Murray of Salmo, pictured at left — is quite possibly the only person still alive born in the hospital.

Thanks to its location on the north edge of town, the hospital was spared destruction in the Nov. 1, 1904 fire that destroyed several buildings on Ymir’s main street.

However, there was a hospital-related casualty. Theresa Fahey had been matron of the old hospital until her marriage in 1901 to druggist Thomas H. Atkinson. She was never happy in Ymir, and indicated her desire to move to Victoria as soon as her husband could sell his business.

“I tell him that if he can’t sell out soon for a decent price, he should set a match to it,” she said. And indeed, Atkinson’s pharmacy and stationary store burned in the fire.

Neighbours suspected Atkinson deliberately started the blaze to collect insurance, noting he moved several wagonloads of stock to his home a few weeks earlier — although he insisted this was standard practice in winter.

Atkinson was arrested and ordered to stand trial for arson. Despondent, his wife drowned herself in the town reservoir. The tragic irony was that Atkinson was acquitted.

By the 1920s, medical directories suggest the Ymir hospital was down to 11 or 12 beds from the 15 it opened with. For five years, Dr. William Rose and Dr. Gilbert Hartin of Nelson paid weekly visits, with Charlotte Nicholson serving as matron.

However, with Ymir’s population dwindling, the hospital closed in December 1925 and Andy Burgess was appointed the building’s caretaker.

In 1927, the Prospectors’ Protective Association passed a resolution calling for the hospital to reopen, “as there are now more than 500 men working around Ymir,” but to no avail. The following year the Ymir Women’s Institute also tried unsuccessfully to reopen it.

The building sat empty until May 11, 1930, when around 3 a.m., fire broke out toward its rear. Although it was noticed within 20 minutes, it spread so quickly nothing could be done to save the building, which was destroyed along with its linens and other furnishings. It was not insured. After 27 years, Ymir’s leading landmark was gone.

Footprints of three people leading from the hospital’s site down a steep bank to the railway tracks led to the belief that the fire was deliberately set. While residents blamed the Sons of Freedom, as the fire occurred during an arson wave in the area, police found no evidence and no one was charged.

The hospital’s site has remained vacant ever since. But the old building is featured prominently on a mural in Ymir, completed by Harvey Penny in 2008.

This story will appear in the West Kootenay Advertiser

Previously in this series

The life and times of the Ymir hospital

Questioning hospital’s finances killed Ymir newspaper


Ymir doctors, nurses, matrons

Ymir births 1897-1903