The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

January 15, 2012

Railroad, disaster birthed hospital

Crude ‘emergency hospital’ of the late 1800s paved the way for Ashtabula General Hospital

Staff Writer

— The Great Lakes shipping industry in the mid-1800s was fraught with losses of both human life and property. In 1851, the year before the east-west Cleveland, Painesville and Ashtabula Railroad was completed through Ashtabula County, there were 79 lives lost on the Great Lakes. The prior year, the lakes claimed 395 lives.

The railroads were not necessarily safer, however. As the Ashtabula Bridge Disaster pointed out, a mishap involving a passenger train could claim as many lives as a shipwreck. Bridges collapsed, trains derailed and sometimes ran head-on to each other. Steam engines were well equipped for inflicting injury and death with their belching fireboxes, exploding boilers and sheer motive force. Further, there was the danger of being crushed between cars, having limbs amputated by the massive steel wheels and being thrown from or knocked off moving stock. Coupling in the early years of railroad was done manually, setting a scenario for crushed hands. Braking was, likewise, a dangerous occupation, with the manual brakes applied from the top of rolling stock.

The first U.S. railroad worker to die in service to his employer was a fireman on the South Carolina Railroad, who was killed June 17, 1831. The engine, “Best Friend of Charleston,” exploded when the fireman restrained the safety valve because its noise annoyed him.

As the railroads expanded, so did the incidence of deaths and injuries. Although accurate data prior to 1910 is impossible to come by, the estimate for the decade 1882 to 1892 is 5,623 deaths and 20,445 injuries on America’s railroads. During that period, only mining surpassed railroading as the most dangerous occupation in the United States. It is said that the experience of trainmen was judged not by the number of years they worked but the number of fingers missing from their hands. A trainman in 1893 had a 1-in-9 chance of being injured and 1-in-115 of being killed in the line of work.

Emergency hospital

It was against such a backdrop of this dangerous, emerging industry and the searing memory of that night of horror in the Ashtabula Gulf that Ashtabula’s first hospital was established. The victims of the Ashtabula Horror, Dec. 29, 1876, had been cared for in homes and filthy lodging houses because the city had no hospital. Throughout the night, the 10 physicians practicing in the village at that time had to do amputations and treat the wounds and burns of the victims in crude, unsanitary conditions.

When the dust settled from the disaster, it became obvious that the community needed a hospital, if for no other reason than to treat the numerous injuries suffered by the railroad workers.

Appropriately, the city’s first official hospital was a very crude emergency facility located on Lake Avenue, about 2,000 feet from the Lake Shore Railroad Company’s station and site of the Ashtabula Bridge Disaster. According to “Creating A Healthier Community: The Story of Ashtabula County Medical Center,” by Michele Kenny Lehman, the hospital was nothing more than a one-room shed that looked like a barn. It measured about 12 by 20 feet and stood near the bank of the Ashtabula River, at the end of Rodgers Place.

A curtain served as a common wall between the hospital’s two rooms. The front room had two cots; in the rear room was a table at which the physician worked. A central coal stove heated the building, which lacked running water.

The emergency hospital appears to have been in operation as early as 1882, when the community was undergoing significant growth as a result of the iron ore shipping boom at Ashtabula Harbor. A primitive ambulance, nothing more than a cart pulled by a team of horses, delivered patients to the hospital. It was an era far removed from the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) patient privacy regulations, and whenever youngsters saw the wagon heading toward the hospital, they congregated at one of the building’s windows to watch the gruesome proceedings.

Physicians who attended to patients in this makeshift hospital included F.D. and C.E. Case, a father and son; W.R. Flower; A.W. Hopkins; I.H. Pardee; and H.E. Whitsey. Inez Rodgers, whose father was superintendent of buildings and bridges on the Lakeshore’s Toledo Division, had the task of building a fire in the coal stove and boiling water whenever the hospital was pressed into service.

The hospital’s ties to the railroad were further cemented by the Ladies Railroad Auxiliary, which was formed in 1882 to support the emergency hospital’s efforts.

This auxillary’s membership was largely the wives and mothers of men who worked on the railroads in the community. Their support functions included molding gauze for bandages and sewing the sheets, pillowcases, gowns and towels used in the emergency hospital. They also served as caregivers to the injured and ill.

This group also took the lead in raising money for a more refined and functional hospital. Bake sales, rummage sales, socials, dances and card parties were sponsored by the ladies to raise money for both the existing and envisioned hospital. Some of these affairs were quite highbrowed for a community that was rough about the edges. A supper-dinner dance at Smith’s Opera House raised $400 toward the future hospital’s medical equipment. A more plebeian dinner dance held in 1892 offered coffee, pressed meat, tongue, boiled ham, escalloped potatoes, escalloped oysters, cabbage salad, baked beans and a night of dancing — all for 25 cents per person. Even at 1892 prices, one has to wonder how they were able to raise a profit, unless all the food was donated.

Raising funds

The years of hard fundraising yielded success in 1902, when the Ashtabula Hospital Association was organized to begin the study and planning for a city hospital. The site was selected in September of that year — James Smith of monument company fame and his mother sold their farm to the association for $1,300. One acre of the 4.61 acres was a gift.

With land thus secured, fundraising kicked into high gear. A lawn fete and carnival and theater production of “David Garrick” were among the creative efforts citizens used to acquire the money to build a hospital.

On March 18, 1903, the association awarded the construction contract to John Johnson for $13,800. Corporate donations rolled into the coffers from the railroads, steamship and dock companies and Ashtabula Hide & Leather Company, which gave the single largest donation to the effort, $3,000.

Ashtabula General Hospital opened June 20, 1904. It featured four wards that could accommodate 30 patients. Hailed as “representing everything that science has devised and that humanity can provide,” the hospital included two operating rooms with glass roofs and artificial lighting.

The railroads’ contributions could be found throughout the building. The Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway Company, Pennsylvania Railway Company and Nickel Plate Railway Company all donated funds to the project. The Ladies Railroad Auxiliary provided everything that was needed to equip the ward set aside for railroad patients and the four private rooms associated with it. Five of the second-floor’s six private rooms were furnished by the Order of Railway Conductors and four other fraternal and aid groups.

Fittingly, the first patient at the new hospital was one injured on the railroad. James Chambers, a young man from Willoughby, decided to hitch a ride on the east-bound Lake Shore freight train on July 1, 1904. As Chambers’ hand clasped the grab handle, he stubbed his toe, lost his grip and fell between the cars. The wheels of the train passed over him, crushing his legs.

He was rushed to the old emergency hospital, where his legs were amputated. He was afterwards admitted to the new hospital by Dr. Case at 12:15 a.m.

Frances T. Moore was the first baby born in the new hospital. Frances was the daughter of an actresss who was performing in Ashtabula when her time to deliver came.

Those patients would have been billed $1.25 per day if they stayed in a ward or $14 to $20 per week for a private room. If anesthetics were used in their operations, an additional fee of $3 to $5 was assessed. Patients were expected to pay two weeks’ board in advance upon being admitted to the hospital.

The pest house

With a new hospital available to doctors, the old emergency hospital was repurposed. The rules of the new facility locked out the insane and contagious patients. Alcoholic and venereal cases were admitted at the discretion of the superintendent and executive committee.

The emergency hospital thus became known as the “pest house,” where quarantine cases were kept. Many of these cases were sailors who arrived at the pest house with highly contagious diseass such as scarlet fever. A Henry Cartner served as a jack-of-all-trades for the house.

The Ladies Railroad Auxiliary would continue to function under that name until World War I, when it was disbanded because so many of the members’ railroading husbands were transferred out of the city. Further, the Ashtabula General Hospital Women’s Auxiliary, founded in 1902, eclipsed and took over the railroading group’s work. Among that group’s early work was raising money for a nurse’s home, erected in 1911. In 1916, a south wing was added to provide obstetrical care, among other things.

The hospital itself would also continue to grow and expand to its current incarnation as Ashtabula County Medical Center. The old hospital was razed in 1952, immediately following the opening of the new, 150-bed hospital that is the nucleus of the existing facility.

An Ohio Historical Society marker near the hospital and a kiosk in the courtyard pay homage to the hospital’s railroading genesis.