The Florence Nightingales of the Columbia Basin

Historical Context

The Columbia Basin was experiencing the first blush of economic development in the 1880s. The Northern Pacific Railway was completed in 1883 from Minneapolis/St. Paul through Sand Point, Idaho and Spokane, Washington to Portland, Oregon. Then in 1885 the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed from Montreal, Quebec through Golden and Revelstoke to Port Moody, British Columbia. The whole of the Columbia Basin was bracketed by major railway access. Quickly the water navigation routes expanded to link with the rail heads at Revelstoke, Golden and Sand Point, Idaho.

The Silver King mine, staked in 1886 by the Hall brothers, spawned the city of Nelson and a copper-lead smelter that functioned from 1896 to 1907. The Sullivan Mine at Kimberley, one of the largest lead-zinc ore bodies in the world, was staked in 1892 by Walter Burchett, E.C. Smith, John Cleaver and Pat Sullivan. The St. Eugene mine was discovered in 1893 by Pierre, a member of the Ktunaxa Nation, and staked by Father Coccola and James Cronin just above what was to become the town of Moyie.

The Crows Nest coal fields had been looked at as commercial properties since the mid-1880s. George Mercer Dawson reported on the fabulous coal seams. Michael Phillipps took note of them, as did William Fernie. It took the coming of Colonel James Baker, however, to mobilize capital and political interest to the point that a railway was proposed through the Crows Nest Pass, providing rail access to the coal fields and shipping access to the large mineral deposits.

M.J. Haney, superintendent of construction on the Crow’s Nest Pass Railway (the B.C. Southern), declared that it would be built in 15 months. Started in 1897, he pushed the project relentlessly to completion in 1898. It was difficult terrain, with high snow loads in the winter. The combination was devastating on both man and beast. Horses died by the hundreds and were not suitably disposed of. Typhoid fever developed and spread throughout the approximately 4,000 men on the work force. Coupled with large numbers of industrial accidents, the project created a medical nightmare.

The Canadian Pacific Railway established construction camp hospitals along the route of the Crow’s Nest Pass Railway. They were inadequate, taxed to the maximum and serviced by travelling doctors in the employ of the CPR. Conditions were deplorable enough that two separate Royal Commissions were struck to investigate the living conditions along the railway construction route. Many of the findings indicated that more appropriate health care and better facilities were required.

Father Coccola was approached to develop a better facility at St. Eugene Mission. The first development money came from his friend James Cronin, $1,000. This was quickly followed by a $5,000 pledge from M.J. Haney and the Canadian Pacific Railway. In quick fashion the first dedicated hospital building was constructed at the St. Eugene Mission. This facility grew to meet demand, and then when railway construction was finished the facility served as aregional hospital.

By 1900 Cranbrook was growing as a divisional point for the Canadian Pacific Railway and development was occurring more rapidly along the railway routes. A feeder line had been constructed into Kimberley and the growing town of Moyie had a station, as did Fernie and Elko. It was decided that the main hospital should be located in closer proximity to the railway, and construction on a new St. Eugene Hospital was started in Cranbrook. The new Cranbrook St. Eugene Hospital opened in 1901 and operated continuously until it was replaced with the new Cranbrook & District Hospital.

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Dr. F.W. Green in St. Eugene Hospital Lab
Hand coloured photo of Dr. F.W. Green working in the lab of the St. Eugene Hospital, Cranbrook, B.C.
View of Moyie from St. Eugene Concentrator
View from the St. Eugene concentrator, looking north at Moyie and staff houses.
St. Eugene School of Nursing Class of 1918
Mary McDougall, the only nurse graduating in 1918. Originally from Dalkeith, Ontario, she became Mrs. R. Pascuzzo of Cranbrook, B.C.
Crowsnest Summit
Image shows the Crowsnest Summit of the Crows Nest Pass railway. Scanned from "Picturesque Cranbrook." 4425 feet above sea level.
St. Eugene Hospital
The St. Eugene Hospital at Cranbrook, B.C.