LISTS OF SIGNIFICANT buildings erected during Port Townsend’s 1888-91 building boom often omit St. John’s Hospital.
Unlike the downtown brick and stone structures of that era, this precursor of later Jefferson Healthcare buildings was a four-story wooden building.
It was one of the first structures built high overlooking the city on what is now known as Castle Hill.
Its location was praised in the Morning Leader for its view of Port Townsend Bay, stating that the view from the upper stories “is one of rare beauty, inspiring in the hearts of the afflicted a feeling of peace and quiet.”
The hospital, with its three towers, is prominent in early photos of the hill.
It was built in 1890 on a block of land between Sheridan Avenue and Cleveland Street donated to the Sisters of Charity of Providence by Charles Eisenbeis and Joe Kuhn. The cost of the building was approximately $50,000.
Kuhn and Eisenbeis owned most of the surrounding property and, during the extreme optimism of that era, felt that the area soon would become a major residential neighborhood.
In 1890, Eisenbeis was building a large hotel on the bluff above what is now the Boat Haven marina.
The Saunders mansion was built part of the way up the hill in 1891, and the Eisenbeis home (now known as Manresa Castle) was built on land adjoining the hospital block in 1892.
Hopes for development of this area were enhanced by a trolley line that was built to run up 19th Street to Cleveland Street where it ran south past the hospital to the Eisenbeis hotel, then west to McPherson Street and north to the end of the trolley line.
At that time, the only road to the hill from the rest of the city crossed the bridge at the end of Lawrence Street across Kah Tai “swamp,” then ran up Discovery Road to Sheridan Avenue.
After the economic downturn in the mid-1890s, the hotel failed, the trolley line was discontinued and the tracks were removed.
The Sisters continued with their efforts to provide hospital service to Jefferson County, stating that “our ministrations will be even more needed in misfortune and disappointment than in prosperity.”
The history of St. John’s hospital began with the Catholic Sisters of Charity of Providence order that established more than 30 institutions in the Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s.
Led by Mother Joseph
Their efforts were led by Mother Joseph, who had first been summoned from Montreal to Fort Vancouver by Father Blanchet in 1856 to help with his missionary efforts there.
Mother Joseph was the daughter of a Montreal woodworker, designer and carriage maker.
She had learned carpentry and design skills in his workshop, and began to design and build needed schools and hospitals in the Pacific Northwest.
She also led other Sisters on “begging tours” throughout the Northwest, going to mines, logging camps and settlements to solicit funds to build and support the institutions.
She succeeded in raising thousands of dollars and had planned and designed 11 hospitals, 12 schools and two orphanages in the Northwest before she died in 1902.
Two nuns arrive
The Sisters of Charity of Providence sent two nuns, Sister Mary Conrad and Sister Mary of Nazareth, to Port Townsend on June 30, 1890, with the intention of starting a hospital for this already flourishing city.
They initially rented a two-room house and began treating patients and soliciting donations.
Many citizens seemed happy to contribute because there was no other general hospital in Port Townsend at that time.
Sister Mary Conrad later said, “There were big donations and little gifts. Someone gave a cow; others sent vegetables and fruit. Donations came from as far away as Chimacum and Whidbey Island.”
The Sisters immediately began to plan a hospital building, and once they had the site selected, they were provided with a plan by Mother Joseph.
J.B. Blanchard of Vancouver, an architect, supervised the construction. Port Townsend resident Andrew Staggerwald was the contractor.
The new hospital building was in use by December of 1890.
It was described in detail by a Morning Leader reporter who was invited for a tour before the official opening:
“An imposing and handsome four-story structure has sprung up during the past four months on block 210, in Eisenbeis Addition.
“When completed it will be one of the finest structures in the city.
“It has a frontage of 138 feet extending back 48 feet. … The main entrance is located in the center of the building at the base of the central tower which extends upward 24 feet above the roof.
“Smaller towers extend upward at each end of the building. Verandas extend around the building at each floor.”
On the main floor, a vestibule at the entrance opened into a 9-foot-wide hallway extending the length of the building.
There was a reception parlor, apothecary department and storeroom, a 22-foot-by-14-foot surgery and two dining rooms, one for private patients and one for the Sisters.
A pantry between the dining rooms and the 21-foot-by-50-foot kitchen included a dumbwaiter for transporting food to patients on the upper floors.
There were also some private patient rooms, with bathrooms and closets, near the patient dining room on this floor.
Two stairways led to the upper floor, as well as an elevator “run by hydraulic pressure.”
On the second floor, the elevator opened into a large dining room for patients. There was a 12-patient ward and 14 private rooms, with bathrooms and closets. There was also a chapel, 50 feet by 21 feet, above the kitchen.
The third floor was also a patient floor similar to the second floor. The fourth floor was a dormitory with rooms for the Sisters and lay nurses, and attic storage space. There were fire escapes leading down from each floor.
In the basement were two large furnace rooms.
The building was heated by “hot water through pipes,” and every room had “hot and cold soft water and drinking water.”
Drinking water was supplied from a 197-foot-deep well on the grounds with a steam pump. Cold water was forced through the building from an 80-foot-high water tower.
A two-story structure behind the main building housed the laundry “supplied with all the latest improved machinery.”
Adjoining the laundry was an engine house with a 30-horsepower engine, used to run a clothes dryer.
There was also a 1½-story barn and a chicken house.
The hospital was as self-sufficient as possible with its own garden and orchard on site.
This was still the case in 1955 when a reporter for the Leader interviewed Sister Mary Serena, who said: “I’m the farmerette. … We raise corn, beans, beets, tomatoes, currants, raspberries, etc. Each year we make a barrel of sauerkraut.”
The potato patch below the hospital provided enough potatoes to last the whole year. They were stored underground in the root cellar, not far from the main entrance of the hospital.
In 1955, there were three 7-week-old pigs, six beef steers and 130 chickens on site. The nuns also maintained an extensive flower garden, providing flowers for the chapel and for “older patients who don’t get many.”
At the time the hospital opened, the Sisters offered an insurance plan of sorts.
The Morning Leader reporter indicated, “The Sisters of Charity from St. John’s Hospital will visit all the mill ports suburban to this city and solicit the sale of admission tickets and every man without home or relatives can make no better investment in life than to purchase one of these tickets.
“These tickets entitle the holder to admission to the hospital under supervision of the Sisters of Charity at any time within one year from date of sale in consequence of any disease or injury incapacitating him from labor (small pox and repeated attacks of alcohol excepted), board, medical and surgical attendance without extra charge.”
The policy of the Sisters was that “regardless of race and creed the suffering can find sanctuary at St. John’s Hospital. … No matter what their social or financial status, it is the purpose of the Sisters of Charity of Providence … that all be treated with kindness and gentle consideration.”
During the first year the hospital was open, 43 patients were treated there, and others received nursing care at their homes or hotels, from the staff of two nurses.
Throughout the years, Sisters and lay nurses were added as the patient load increased. Garden and building maintenance workers were also hired.
The Sisters maintained a cordial relationship with Jefferson County doctors whose patients were hospitalized there.
A brick wing was added to the hospital in 1929 for $90,000, bringing the number of beds available to 130. During many years of its existence, a portion of the hospital served as an “old folks home” for indigent members of the community.
A fire in 1942 destroyed the fourth floor of the 1890 building, but rapid response by firefighters and the community saved the rest of the building, and no one was injured by the fire.
The fourth floor was then rebuilt with a flat roof.
The 1890 building continued to serve the community for nearly 20 more years.
Old building razed
It was razed when the new hospital was built in 1965 through a joint fundraising effort by the community and the Sisters of Charity of Providence.
The last vestiges of the garden, orchard and root cellar were also removed at that time.
The hospital became a county hospital with its own board of commissioners in 1975.
The 1929 brick building was used for various purposes until the most recent addition for Jefferson Healthcare was built in 2016 on the space it had formerly occupied.
Linnea Patrick is a historian and retired Port Townsend Public Library director.
Her Jefferson County history column, Back When, appears on the third Sunday of each month, alternating with Alice Alexander’s Clallam County history column on the first Sunday of the month.
Patrick can be reached at [email protected]. Her next column will appear March 19.