Special Reports

Early residents had choice of hospitals

The little black bag carried by many doctors in the early 1900s didn't have much for what ails you.

Open it and you might find morphine and aspirin for pain, quinine to fight off malaria, a smallpox vaccine and, perhaps, digitalis - a natural steroid for the heart made from the leaves of purple foxglove.

A simple cut from a saw could be life-threatening. With little to offer patients besides compassion, doctors at the beginning of the 20th century built a business on their bedside manner.

A look at patient registration books for Bellingham's St. Joseph Hospital during the early years reveals the sort of injuries and illnesses common at that time. Ax and saw cuts, broken bones, consumption, near-drowning and alcoholism were common in a land where men logged trees, dug tunnels and sailed schooners.

The roots of today's St. Joseph Hospital go back to the early 1890s when church and civic leaders from the Bellingham Bay cities sent a letter to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace asking for help establishing the area's first hospital. Founded by England's Mother Francis Clare in 1884, the Sisters had a branch in New Jersey.

In 1891, Sister Theresa Moran and Sister Stanislaus Tighe traveled across the country to Fairhaven. Once there, they helped raise money, procured an acre of donated land and inspired volunteers to help erect the first hospital on Bellingham Bay. It had 30 beds.

During the same time, the firm of Jones and Carolyn, busy building the wagon road between the town of Whatcom and Silver Beach, was contracted to build the Grand Central Hotel at Forest and Holly streets. The building, a labyrinth of rooms, hallways and staircases, never opened as a hotel.

Instead, the building was rented to accommodate the first St. Luke's Hospital, established by St. Paul's Episcopal Parish.

Now the pioneers had two hospitals from which to choose - one Catholic, the other Protestant.

The physical environment of both hospitals reflected the lifestyle of the patients they helped. Bed frames were made of locally produced iron pipe. Hospital volunteers grew the produce and tended the livestock that provided the meals. Surgery patients had to reach one of the operating rooms via an outside staircase.

Both hospitals grew, right along with the population of the Bellingham Bay cities. In 1900, builders laid the cornerstone for the new St. Joseph Hospital at 250 Elk St. (now North State Street). The bill for the new facility totaled $20,000. St. Luke's moved into a building of its own in 1895. The ever-increasing population meant more patients and a need for more nurses, so each hospital founded a nursing school.

In the 1930s, St. Luke's incorporated as a nonprofit community hospital and broke its financial ties with the Episcopal church. The two institutions finally merged when St. Joseph acquired St. Luke's in 1989.

It was more than city blocks that separated the hospitals over the years, however, and the move proved difficult for some residents.

"Growing up, I had family members that were nurses at St. Luke's," said Richard Vanderway, education curator at Whatcom Museum of History & Art. "Some people in my family would have actually driven to Mount Vernon before going to St. Joe's for treatment after St. Luke's closed."