Ponoka Hospital was a leader in power generation – Reflections of Ponoka

Chief engineer Frank Young and engineer Matthias stand in front of the new and powerful equipment that was installed at the Alberta Hospital Power House in the 1960s. At that time the generators had a capacity of 1

Chief engineer Frank Young and engineer Matthias stand in front of the new and powerful equipment that was installed at the Alberta Hospital Power House in the 1960s. At that time the generators had a capacity of 1

It is most interesting to note that it was the Provincial Mental Hospital’s electrical power plant that initially tied the new institution and the Town of Ponoka closely together, establishing a firm foundation of warm spirit and co-operation that has carried on for close to 100 years.

In the fall of 1911 when the power plant at the modern new hospital was in full operation, the busy Town of Ponoka was still without electric power. The hospital plant had a powerful 50 kW generator that was only idling most of the time, and an arrangement was made between PMH and town officials to ‘light up the town’ with the shared energy source.

Frank Young, the power plant superintendent at the hospital for over 30 years, recalls that the first hook-up with the town provided only enough power for lighting the streets, business places, and such residences that were ready for it. The power was turned into the town circuit one hour before dark and continued to flow until one hour after daylight, every day.

Another kindly arrangement between the hospital and town came later, when power was extended to the community on Monday mornings for the housewives to do their washing. Later, the PMH also shared the juice on Wednesday mornings, so that the ladies could use those newfangled electric irons that their husbands, who were always in the doghouse, were giving their wives for gifts.

Gradually, Ponoka’s need for power kept expanding, along with its rapid growth, and because the existing Provincial Mental Hospital power plant was also coming under increasing demand, the agreement had to be terminated in 1928. With ongoing support from the hospital and some excellent planning, the Town of Ponoka went ahead and built its own electrical distribution system. Later, they were able to simply hook their lines into the Calgary Power Limited Service, receiving power at a wholesale price, while retaining their system as a civic utility, and realizing a substantial income and saving on local power services for many years.

Early gas well testing assisted by PMH

The Provincial Mental Hospital power plant was also tied in closely with the early testing for natural gas in Alberta. The first well was drilled on the hospital grounds in 1918, another in 1919, and a third between 1920-21. The initial well was not far from the sight of the hospital sewage disposal plant, went to a depth of only 2900 feet, but produced a good flow of gas and some oil. For a number of years this well was used for heating one of the hospital boilers, and well into the 1960’s was still registering a pressure of over 600 pounds. In later years with the required expansion and modernization of the huge PMH power plant, it would be entirely run by natural gas supplied by Northwestern Utilities Ltd.

In addition to supplying electrical power for the huge institution on a 24-7 basis, the power plant also generated steam heat for all of the buildings, also having a similar smaller power plant up at the hospital farm. In the winter months the steady generation of 40,000 pounds of steam an hour was required to provide heat and power for the facility. Also in some of those months at peak periods an average of 800,000 cubic feet of gas was used in a 24-hour period.

Water needs of the hospital were tremendous!

Another major responsibility of the hospital power plant was to provide the rapidly expanding facility with a steady supply of fresh water. In the early years, 300,000 gallons of water would be a week’s supply for the institution. With the addition of many new buildings and a combined patient and staff count of over 1500, by the 1960’s the weekly water consumption would reach 2,000,000 gallons being pumped from four wells. Like the Town of Ponoka the PMH is extremely fortunate in having an excellent water supply.

Over the past 100 years many staff members have seen the overwhelming changes made at the Provincial Mental Hospital power and sewage disposal plant. Engineers, operators, steamfitters, plumbers, fireman, and others attended to the massive coal fired boilers until the 1930s when mechanical stokers were installed. Tons of coal, delivered to the hospital by horse and cart and later along the CPR spur line, were used as the boiler fuel until 1948 when natural gas powered the entire system.

While new and modern equipment has been added to the power plant over the years, the same dedication and skills of the staff, yesterday and today, have always been in place for this most vital part of our Centennial Centre for Mental Health and Brain Injury.

Names and photos of the likes of Seagraves, Severance, MacDonald, McGeachy, Kembry, Matthews, Whitman, Bowden, Carruthers, Spink, Bures, Wilson, Scarr, Martin, Thorn, Clements, Wills, Davis, Scott, and countless others will be honoured and remembered at the 100 Years of Caring Reunion weekend July 29 to 31 at the Centennial Centre and throughout the community.

We are experiencing technical difficulties with our commenting platform and hope to be up and running again soon. In the meantime, you can still send us your thoughts on Facebook or Twitter, or submit a letter to the editor.