Early days of nursing in the Yukon were no picnic

We are used to the conveniences of a territory-wide health-care system with state-of-the-art hospitals, ambulances and medevac service. Before the gold rush, however, there was little if any medical care available in the Yukon.

We are used to the conveniences of a territory-wide health-care system with state-of-the-art hospitals, ambulances and medevac service. Before the gold rush, however, there was little if any medical care available in the Yukon.

Steve Custer, for example, was a Fortymile miner who froze his feet severely in the early 1890s and was forced to travel to St. Michael, a distance of 1,000 miles, to have his toes amputated. Everyone relied upon home remedies and an often ill-informed understanding of what caused disease. When the North-West Mounted Police arrived in Fortymile in 1895, they brought with them a surgeon, who could provide care to anyone who needed it.

With the discovery of the Klondike, Father Judge laboured hard to be one of the first on the scene in Dawson City. He selected a site and began building a church and hospital. The first hospital was housed in a tent. Father Judge needed help, and the Sisters of St. Ann were sent to his aid. This order of Catholic nuns was first established in the west when its headquarters were built in Victoria in 1858. Soon, they had established outposts all over the northwest, including Alaska.

Several Sisters from Holy Cross, Alaska, responded to the urgent need, but due to their late season departure and the low water levels in the Yukon Flats downriver from Dawson, they were not able to reach the gold rush city until the summer of 1898 aboard the steamer Alice. None of the Sisters was trained in nursing, but they soon learned in the chaotic conditions created by the gold rush.

The first winter in Dawson, they battled a typhoid epidemic – and lice, which infested the miners coming in from the creeks. In the first three months, they treated 726 patients, fewer than half of whom could pay for the care they provided.

Much of the sisters’ time was devoted to raising funds to pay for the hew hospital, the original one having burned down. Two sisters trudged through the goldfields for 28 days and raised $10,000 for their efforts.

Meanwhile, in Ottawa, Lady Aberdeen, wife of the Governor-General of Canada had just created a nursing order in honour of Queen Victoria. She received a letter from Klondike clergyman R.M. Dickey that stressed the urgent need for nurses in the far northwest.

Lady Aberdeen immediately sent out a call for volunteers, from whom she selected four highly qualified nurses for two years of service in the Yukon: Georgia Powell, Rachel Hanna, Margaret Payson and Amy Scott. These four able women travelled across the country and accompanied 200 members of the Yukon Field Force over the Telegraph Trail from Telegraph Creek to Teslin Lake and Dawson during the spring and early summer of 1898.

They battled high mountains, raging rivers and many kilometres of swamp in ankle-length dresses through all kinds of weather, and eventually reached Dawson City, where they immediately set to work.

Powell and Hanna joined the newly established Good Samaritan Hospital at the south end of Dawson and assisted Reverend Andrew Grant in the treatment of their first 10 patients. Margaret Payson became matron of a hospital at Grand Forks on Bonanza Creek. Amy Scott assisted the surgeon at the police barracks hospital.

Their facilities were crudely built. At first, the only light in the Good Samaritan Hospital was from candles, and the walls were logs and moss. Canvas covered the windows, but that was often cut up to serve for other purposes, for there wasn’t a metre of cotton to be found anywhere.

Understaffed, overworked and underequipped, these nurses waged a battle against the ravages of typhoid, pneumonia, scurvy and frostbite. As one of them described it: “There were no disinfectants, no sheets, no gowns, no pillows. Each patient rolled up his mackinaw to put under his head. There were a few towels, but no materials for dressing or bath cloths.”

What dressings they had were in such short supply that the nurses refused to cut them into pieces that would be too small to be of any use. The nurses also travelled through the goldfields, tending those who could not make it into Dawson.

When their terms were up, Margaret Payson married a wealthy miner. Georgia Powell stayed in the Yukon for a while, eventually serving overseas in the 10th Canadian Field Hospital with Amy Scott in South Africa. Rachel Hanna moved to Atlin where she was the matron of St. Andrew’s Hospital for 14 years.

In 1900, a new matron at The Good Samaritan named Miss Smith and seven nurses tended to those stricken by an epidemic of typhoid and pneumonia. Meanwhile, St. Mary’s Hospital, which was located at the north end of town, was deeded to the Sisters of St. Ann after the death of Father Judge in January of that year. Guided by Sister Mary Zenon, St. Mary’s Hospital continued to expand, adding a third storey and lengthening the structure. In 1906, a new St. Mary’s Hospital was constructed. It even had a maternity wing.

The population of Dawson dwindled after the turn of the century. By 1918, the town wasn’t big enough to support two hospitals anymore, and the Good Samaritan closed. St. Mary’s Hospital also became the home for an increasing number of aging miners. In 1939, Sister Mary Henrietta became the matron of St. Mary’s Hospital. Despite the shortages of the war years, the hospital continued to grow, adding an isolation ward, a children’s ward, and a section for TB patients.

In 1949, the Sisters of St. Ann celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of St. Mary’s Hospital. By that time, over 25,000 patients had been treated there, and almost 3,500 operations had been performed; 4700 X-Rays had been taken, and 657 babies delivered.

The hospital was destroyed by fire on January 10, 1950, but the Sisters quickly regrouped, moving the hospital into the empty federal courthouse at the south end of town, while converting the Commissioner’s Residence into a home for the elderly and accommodation for hospital staff.

Declining population, closure of the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation (the town’s main employer) and construction of government facilities for the elderly eliminated the need for the Sisters to continue. After 65 years of continuous service in the Yukon, they withdrew in 1963.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net