The first palatial Nurses’ Residence at the PMH was built in 1921 and would serve as the comfortable and friendly ‘home away from home’ for thousands of student nurses and staff for many decades.

Reflections: The early construction of then Ponoka mental hospital

Looking at the early development of then provincial mental hospital in Ponoka

By Mike Rainone for the News

For those generations of families and individuals who have lived in and around Ponoka going all the way back to the early 19th century most of these will never forget the countless occasions that we rode, or drove, or walked up and down the hill on that old road to the Provincial Mental Hospital (now Centennial Centre for Mental Health and Brain Injury).

It would be impossible to imagine just how many times during that colourful and historical period of now over 107 years that thousands of local citizens, visitors, staff, students, and patients witnessed and were an integral part of the amazing and ongoing growth, changes, successes, and challenges of this massive first class Psychiatric treatment and teaching facility.

So many challenges from the beginning

Prior to its acceptance as a separate province of Canada on Sept. 1, 1905 Alberta had been formed as a part of the Northwest Territories. After lengthy and sincere discussion across the nation the ‘Insanity Act’ was passed in 1907, which gave the Lieutenant-Governor in council the power to direct the building of Mental Health Treatment facilities throughout Canada to provide vital care to those with mental illness.

With considerable lobbying by the Government of Alberta and the council of the new Town of Ponoka the final choice was made to construct a new hospital on an 800-acre site located about one and three-quarter miles southeast of Ponoka along the old Hudson’s Bay Company trail between the cities of Edmonton and Calgary. Work would begin on Aug. 1, 1908, and the layout plans of the initial buildings were prepared by provincial architect A.M. Jeffers, which would follow the same structure of an acute facility already in operation at Utica, New York.

Because of this new isolated location and the consequent lack of fire protection from outside sources, it was decided to construct the Provincial Mental Hospital near Ponoka of entirely fire-proof materials. Tenders accepted would therefore call for buildings with stone and brick masonry walls, including the use of Calgary sandstone, steel, concrete, and terra cotta block construction with plaster trim. The heating of the facility would be supplied from the main power house, and featured two systems providing warm air blowers for private rooms, as well as direct thermostatically controlled steam radiation to the day-rooms, dormitories, and corridors. Provision was also made for complete and modern electric lighting and fire alarm systems. The initial structure would be 139 feet long and 45 feet wide, stand three stories high as well as a full basement, was designed in the form of a cross, and was all connected by longitudinal corridors and fireproof stairways. The facility would consist of central administration offices (now the Heritage building), two patient wings, one for men and the other for women, both of which would be complete with work rooms, sitting rooms, and sleeping rooms, as well as a large day room, fireplaces, and big bay windows to provide lots of natural light.

There were hundreds of men involved in the initial construction of the PMH, most of them living on the grounds in tents and bunkhouses. Mr. Frank Young, the chief engineer at the time recalled that all of the building materials for the massive project, including the rock and sand were imported to Ponoka, and then under a contract with Mr. J.W. O’Brien were brought up to the hospital sight by teams and wagons. The countless tons of rock was crushed on site and at one time some 20 steam crushers and cement mixers were in operation, while other machinery and a great deal of physical labour was utilized to dig out and prepare the ground for foundations followed by nearly three years of steady construction. The total building program encompassed the main building, the power house, and the sewage disposal, then later came the addition of the 130 foot water tower with an 80,000 gallon tank capacity and a 100 foot powerhouse brick chimney, both of which were built from very tall scaffolds. The hospital water supply came from a 200 foot deep well located in the boiler room, while the power house would generate electricity for the entire hospital as well as selling some to the Town of Ponoka for a few years. Later a spur line from the main Canadian Pacific Railway line was laid coming into the hospital grounds to bring in the countless daily supplies that would be required for the daily operations of the rapidly growing psychiatric facility.

The hospital was officially opened on July 4, 1911, but due to the rapid admittance of new patients the ‘construction years’ continued to fill the demand through the 1920s and beyond. New additions included the fully operational and independent hospital farm and dorms, a new nurses’ home to accommodate the hundreds of students enrolling in the psych nursing program, a laundry and silo, staff residences, medical facilities, a recreation hall, new wards and dining rooms for both men and women, a fully modern kitchen and bake shop, greenhouses, root cellars, ice house, and on and on into through a hectic program of patient care, treatment and many other related daily social activities. By 1937 the Provincial Mental Hospital near Ponoka was filled to capacity with a patient count of 1,707 patients from throughout Canada and the United States, all under the daily direction and special care of over 500 medical, nursing, administration, and support staff.

Those first construction stages of our Provincial Mental Hospital would mark the exciting and colourful beginnings of a new era in our province and nation that was dedicated to the resurgence of a vitally important and ongoing psychiatric treatment and support program both in Alberta and throughout our nation. It was also a powerful milestone for the new Town of Ponoka, which over the years always extended its keen support and sincere welcome to the generations of patients, staff, and students who have been a part of the history, growth, and outstanding successes of this first class medical facility. Everyone can also be very sure that through the countless changes and advances in treatment programs and landscapes that have taken place at the Centennial Centre over the past 11 decades that those longstanding and proud traditions of quality care and compassion have and will always carry on long into our future.

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