A century of reliable transportation services at the Ponoka hospital! – Reflections of Ponoka

Driver Mr. Cox proudly sits behind the wheel of the first hospital bus in 1928

Driver Mr. Cox proudly sits behind the wheel of the first hospital bus in 1928

Over the past 100 years of illustrious and countless milestones and successes at the Centennial Centre for Mental Health and Brain Injury, the varied methods of transportation for all facets of the facility have been reliable, unique, and ever changing! In the early days the staff likely had very little problem or choice about walking or riding their bikes to work, while some were lucky enough to hitch a ride on the horse drawn wagon that travelled up and down the hospital road several times daily to pick up new patients, supplies, or mail at the Ponoka C.P.R. station in town. Most of the heavy hauling was done this way, with the sturdy built wagons transforming from wheels to sleigh runners, depending of course on the seasons!

As the mechanical era began to influence all areas of the prairies, our newly built ultra-modern Provincial Mental Hospital would replace some of their teams with steam tractors and farming equipment. The introduction of generated steam and electrical power also provided all sorts of advances in all areas of the massive Psychiatric treatment facility. One of the major additions to the day-today operation of the hospital was the construction of a spur-line, which came off the main Canadian Pacific Railway track, stopping next to the powerhouse. This allowed for the easier daily delivery and unloading of building materials, coal, and all the many other supplies destined for distribution from the main stores.

Mr. Harold Watson was hired as the first Driver/Mechanic for the P.M.H. in 1924, and would faithfully serve in that position until his retirement on May 10, 1952. As staff families began to move into residences on the grounds a large truck was utilized for all purposes, including hauling provisions from the train station in town, then adding seats along the sides to take the children to school or for transporting patients, staff, and field workers to all areas of the grounds. In 1930 the hospital acquired the chassis of a large touring car, which was once owned by a notorious rumrunner from the Blairmore area, had bullet holes in the door, and had finally been silenced by the local police. The hospital’s Occupational Carpenter, George Watt, did a fine job of stripping down the frame, fashioning a strong body of metal and lathe, and adding seats to accommodate over 50 rambunctious children. This was very likely the first official school bus/mail/transport truck in our Province, and while the two-mile ride back and forth to the school was very rough, in was also exciting, especially when the roads were bad! As time passed the County of Ponoka took over the responsibility of transporting the school children, with the big yellow bus also picking up some of us Riverside students along the way. Other trucks and vehicles were also added to handle the annual transportation of 23,000 gallons of fruits and vegetables from the hospital cannery, massive daily loads from the laundry, produce and supplies from the farm and gardens, and to accommodate the other expanding departments.

As the hospital grew to accommodate well in excess of 1000 patients and 500 staff, the transportation department expanded to its own mechanical shop and garage in 1955. The fleet would soon include a large modern bus, as well as mini-vans, an ambulance, vans, and cars that would serve 24-7 to transport patients and staff to appointments, activities, and hospital business around the grounds, to the town and districts, and throughout the Province. One of my favourite tasks while working for the Ponoka Rising Sun Club House in the 1980’s was getting to pick up one of those big vans or trucks from transportation, then taking members on a special activity or to work.

The Alberta Hospital also added their own completely modern Fire Department, which was manned by the staff for many years, then later taken over by the Emergency Services Department of the Town of Ponoka.

Don Hill fondly remembers joining the staff of the Alberta Hospital in 1960, working for a short time in the gardens, joining the transportation department from 1961-1976, and then serving in other public works and maintenance capacities until his retirement in 1987. A former farmer from the Lacombe district, Don always really enjoyed the great atmosphere of teamwork and camaraderie in all of the hospital departments, with everyone always pulling together to get the job done! Duties included short and long distance trips taking patients and support staff to hospitals, appointments, transfers, and to various activities, always helping with the wheel chairs, as well as picking up supplies in whatever vehicle was required for the task. It was so busy around the garage and with the fleet that most of the vehicles had to be cleaned on the weekends.

Among the staff that he recalls working with were: Mel Riley, Sam Wills, Hugh Green, Elmer Cerveny, Richard Stebner, Stan Pugh, Garry Bredlow, Reg Johnston, Merle Rausch, and many others. Hill also recalled that Art Barnes was also a long time dedicated employee in the transportation department, serving as the automotive mechanic/machinist and welder from 1952 until 1971, which also included the repair and maintenance of all the machinery for the hospital farm and greenhouse.

Much has changed in the ongoing modernization of the Centennial Centre, while the management and staff of the transportation department continues to maintain the same excellent tradition of vital support and service for all areas of the first class treatment and teaching facility.