If we could turn back the pages of time about 100 years or so, we might find ourselves on the hill where the ultra-modern Centennial Centre for Mental Health and Brain Injury now stands, watching the humble beginnings of a long standing tradition of mental health care and understanding in our community.
A couple of miles to the north, among the lush, rolling hills of the Battle River valley, the bustling new town of Ponoka was growing rapidly in preparation for a bright and exciting future. Along the rough dirt and cinder road between the community and the hospital construction site would be seen an endless stream of horse-drawn wagons packed with hundreds of workers, equipment, supplies and materials to build the massive hospital.
After Alberta became a province in 1905 came the countless responsibilities and requests for provincial public services, and the new but enthusiastic politicians would soon turn their attention toward the establishment of an Alberta-based centre for the care and treatment of the mentally ill. There were several drawbacks to using Manitoba’s institutions, especially the periods of confinement while patients awaited transportation, as well as the length of the journey itself.
The Alberta Legislature passed the Insanity Act in 1907 to regulate the custody of the mental ill and the disposition of their property. The Lieutenant Governor in Council was given the power to build a provincial hospital and as a result of this vital legislation, those mentally ill Albertans who had been transported to the Manitoba hospital would eventually be repatriated to their home province. Also, the role of the medical practitioner was formally recognized in the care and treatment of the mentally ill in Alberta.
Dr. W. A. Campbell of Ponoka led a vigorous campaign and delegation to Edmonton based upon the economic benefits that would accrue to Ponoka, not only through building contracts during construction, but the ongoing economic presence of the large staff who would make their homes in the community if the hospital were located here.
On April 19, 1907 one of the most historic and important announcements in our long and proud history was made — construction of a provincial mental hospital would take place near Ponoka. A year later, after Premier Alexander Rutherford had inspected the proposed site nearly two miles southwest of the town, the official selection was made and construction began on the location along the Hudson Bay Company Trail between the cities of Calgary and Edmonton.
The Provincial Mental Hospital at Ponoka was heralded as an example of progress in the new province. The main building was built to accommodate 150 patients, and there were cottages nearby to house an additional number of higher functioning clients. Provincial architect A.M. Jeffers prepared plans for the modern hospital, based on blueprints and successes from a hospital in Utica, N.Y.
J.W. O’Brien and his son, Ernie, were awarded the contract to move the extremely heavy materials and countless articles from the busy Ponoka Canadian Pacific Railway siding to the hospital site, and would be assisted by Jim Stoutenberg and a team of men. Due to the unsatisfactory nature of the subsoil, the piles for the foundations for all the buildings had to be set at a depth of 25 feet.
The many tons of ‘nigger-head’ rock that would be required for the packing and to make the cement were broken down on site by more than 20 steam-driven crushers and temperamental cement mixers. One of the first steps of this construction was the drilling of a 200-foot well near the eventual powerhouse site, which has been the vital operational heart of this huge operation since its beginning on July 4, 1911.
All of the unloading from the freight cars at the station was done by hand by hardy men, with the exception of some massive machinery units, for which a gin-pole was rigged up and the lifting done by a winch. The initial central administrative structure (still partially standing as the Heritage Building) was a solid red brick three-storey structure, 139 feet long and 45 feet wide, with two 95-foot by 42-foot wings to house the patients, and a basement for storage and other uses. This modern, fireproof and aesthetically friendly initial building housed the medical, administrative and support staff. The bright and comfortable patient wings included sleeping and workrooms, as well as large sitting rooms, outside verandas, and day areas that featured a fireplace and large bay windows.
During those hectic three-plus years of construction, the men involved would live in tents or bunkhouses on the grounds, while a few had the luxury of staying in one of the posh boarding houses in Ponoka. Needless to say, paydays and rare days off were certainly a boon to local shops — and of course the friendly confines of the Royal Hotel and Leland Hotel pubs — while many enjoyed a dip in the Battle River or occasional games of baseball and hockey.
Frank Young, who worked as the powerhouse superintendent at the Provincial Mental Hospital for more than 30 years, recalled at the 50th anniversary celebration of the hospital that he drove some of those teams up and down that road as a teenager. He explained that when the two big boilers came in for the new power plant they were carefully loaded onto two wagons that had been drawn together side by side and had heavy timbers chained across them. This heavy cargo of solid steel was then slowly taken up to the hospital site under the power of Anton Bittner’s steam engine.
Because of its isolated location and lack of community fire protection, the Alberta hospital was built entirely of fireproof materials, including stone and brick masonry walls, steel, concrete and terracotta block construction, with neat plaster trim. The hospital was equipped with a contemporary heating system that cleaned and humidified the air and blew warm air into the private rooms. Direct steam radiation units, controlled by thermostats, were located at exposed points in the bright dayrooms, dormitories, and corridors, and the entire facility was complemented with a state of the art electric light and fire alarm system.
An isolated powerhouse, joined to the centre of the hospital building by a tunnel, generated constant high pressure steam that drove an electric current generator, which in turn heated water for the modern plumbing system, laundry and kitchen, as well as keeping the entire hospital warm and cosy. This powerhouse generated sufficient electricity to light all the buildings and grounds, operate the elevator, laundry equipment and water supply pumps, and up until 1929 supplied the neighbouring Town of Ponoka with its electric energy.
Construction was completed in the fall of 1910, and included the erection of the 80,000-gallon capacity water tower, which when raised to a height of 130 feet, remained a landmark for decades. The hospital’s water supply was obtained from a 200-foot well in its boiler room; the sewage treated in a concrete-constructed sewage treatment plant before eventual discharge into the Battle River.
After an exhaustive search throughout Canada and the United States to secure the most efficient administration and staff for the Ponoka institution, it was officially opened on July 4, 1911. Dr. T. Dawson, a medical officer for the City of Calgary, was appointed as the hospital’s first medical superintendent. Dawson was obviously pleased with the sophisticated technology used in this new hospital and expressed with joy…“ornamental electric lamps exist everywhere, and indeed there is an air of luxuriance and comfort when all the lights are aglow. This should aid us all in dispelling doubt and gloom, nor are we hiding our light under a bushel, but are also delivering it to Ponoka, which lies in semi-darkness about a mile and a half to the northwest.”
There was also a complete system of telephonic communication throughout the building.
Internally, the atmosphere of the hospital was revolutionary and welcomed visitors would be pleased to see patient rooms that were furnished to the warm comforting standards of everyday living, with no enclosures used. From Day 1 the mental hospital was filled with patients, care and treatment programs began, and have carried on and progressed over an exciting span of nearly 100 years. An active building and expansion program attempted to remain one step ahead of ever-increasing admission and service demands.