By the mid 1950s it was obvious that the old St. Eugene Hospital, a warhorse of local health for over half a century, was no longer meeting the requirements of the district. Grand old building that she was it was time to move on.
In 1959, a small local committee was formed to investigate the possibility of a new hospital. To say that the next decade would be a time of trial and tribulation for the volunteers dedicated to the construction of the new building would be an understatement indeed.
It seemed simple at first: request a survey of the district medical needs from the B.C. Health Insurance Services (forerunner of the present Medicare system), apply to the government for funding and build a hospital.
Not quite. The BCHIS, only just managing to right the ship after years of confusion, mismanagement and underfunding, needed to approve the survey before they themselves would undertake the survey.
It didn’t happen. Not in 1959, nor 1960. They refused to bow to local pleading, threats or the fact that the St. Eugene Hospital was scheduled to close in 1965. No survey, no approval.
Maurice Klinkhamer, one of the early driving forces behind the project, declared in early 1962 that it was “A difficult period of uphill work against heavy odds. A period of attrition, gradual wearing down, disgusting and tiring out.”
Still, the committee kept at it. The Chamber of Commerce joined in, demanding a reply to the situation from Health Minister Eric Martin. Minister Martin accused the now established local Hospital Committee of not following his instructions, which were, many pointed out, as clear as bureaucratic mud. A Hospital Society was formed in December, 1962, with memberships selling at $1.00 each; within a few months the society would boast over 1,000 members. In January, 1963, Mr. Martin gave his approval-in-principle for the project with details to be worked out with the BCHIS.
Thus began the search for an architect (the local firm of Fairbanks, Sawyer, Nixon and Browning) and a site (the hill between the former city dump and the old red-light district). Initial construction estimates came in at over $3 million. “Too much,” said the government. The original costs were scaled back by the BCHIS in 1964, but a local plebiscite was still required to make up the difference. A record “yes” vote gave the go-ahead.
Additional planning continued until May, 1966, when the project was finally opened to tender. The contract was awarded to Laing Construction and Equipment Ltd. of Vancouver although their bid, the lowest of the three submitted, was one million dollars over budget. “
Too much” said the government and it was back to the polls in July 1966, to raise the additional amount. The ratepayers gave another strong affirmative. Construction began on Aug. 12, 1966, following a sod-turning at which B.C. Premier W.A.C. Bennett declared, “Of all the days in Cranbrook, no day will be more important than this.”
It was early 1968 before the end was truly in sight. The building was 90 per cent complete and the opening set for April. No? Let’s try for May. Say, how about August 21? Check that — let’s make it August 31, 1968.
And so it was. Over 3,000 people attended the two-day open house, marveling at the modern design and, no doubt, marveling that they had lived long enough to see it completed.
The hospital included a number of modern systems designed to meet modern demands. The “Message System” placed Dictaphones on each floor thereby allowing messages to be sent to the “library” where stenographers added the information to the appropriate file. The “Pneumatic Tube System” utilized tubing placed throughout the building to allow medicine, messages and small objects to be sent almost instantly to strategically placed stations on each floor. The “Doctor’s Paging System” consisted of small hand-held devices allowing discrete communication with other staff members as opposed to the common public address paging system. The “Nurses Call Station System” saw both the traditional push-button lights and an intercom in each ward connected to the nurses’ station. It truly was a modern medical marvel. In fact, the “Food Distribution System” proved so reliable it is still in use today. It involved hot and cold hand-carts originating, not surprisingly, from the kitchen.
Local contractors Louis Salvador & Sons provided approximately 4,500 tons of concrete during construction, the largest amount used to that time on any single city project. Enough concrete, according to one reporter, to build a wall down Baker Street one foot wide by 84 feet high. Not quite enough to also close off both ends.
The Hospital Board requested every consideration be given to the psychological effects of colour and texture in the interior decoration in order to cater to the welfare of patients, staff and visitors. Visitors, it might be added, who availed themselves of a parking lot capable of holding 100 vehicles. The artistic “piece de resistance” was a lobby wall mural of walnut and welded-copper sculpted by Zeljko Kujundzic (creator of the local Fink fountain) entitled “Reverence of Life.”
It took nearly a decade but the Cranbrook & District Hospital was finally a reality, thereby proving the fact that the successful creation of a hospital requires a lot of patience.