West Virginia hospital that once treated miners leaves little trace

by AryanArtnews
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PRINCE, West Virginia (AP) — The completion of a railroad line through the coal-rich New River Canyon in 1873 set the stage for a decades-long boom that briefly transformed Industrial landscape in remote canyon terrain. It is now the newest national park in the United States.

Ten years after the C&O Railroad began transporting New River coal to factories from the East Coast to the Ohio Valley, the canyon has become a hive of human activity. By the late 1880s, a new mining, coke-making or sawmill community could be found every half mile of the 53-mile-long canyon, mostly accessible only by rail.

With no end in sight for the influx of workers into the canyon hoping to improve their lives while helping power America’s industrial engine, the West Virginia legislature decided it was time for the fast-growing but already dangerous mining industry.

In 1899, the legislature authorized the construction of three hospitals in three of the state’s most active coal fields (Fairmont in the north, Pocahontas in the southwest, and New River Canyon) to serve sick or injured miners.

Miners’ Hospital No. 3 was completed at Fairmont in October 1900, while Miners’ Hospital No. 1 in Welch began serving patients in January 1902.

According to the 1880 census, Miners Hospital No. 2 began operations in December 1901 in McKendree’s small New River Canyon logging community of 44 people.

According to Canyon National Park Service history, McKendree was chosen “because Quinnimont’s influential coal operator Joseph Beury wanted to build a hospital at that location.”

Of the several proposed sites for the Gorge Miners’ Hospital, McKendree is the nearest Beury mining enterprise. Beury donated the 6.5 acres of land on which the hospital is located, as well as a 5-year supply of coal to heat it.

The new hospital is located on relatively flat land approximately 100 feet above the New River, along the C&O Main Line, providing access to all of the Gorge coal mines. According to a 1910 report by the West Virginia Board of Control, which at the time oversaw state hospitals, prisons and universities, the site was “free from the smoke and dirt of the mines and any disturbing influence of cars.” Therefore, it is “ideal” for the patient’s healthy recovery.

The three-story red-brick hospital has 42 beds in two ground-floor wards—one for black miners and one for whites. The second floor houses offices, nurses and surgeon quarters, while the top floor houses operating theatres, sterilisation rooms and private rooms for white female patients.

Miners, railroad workers and disabled children in the area all have free access to health care. Other patients were admitted but were required to pay medical bills, which in the early days of the hospital were $1 per day. After the hospital started operating, all the beds were occupied.

In the first year, 77 percent of McKendree’s patients were miners. Burns were the most common injuries, but 30 cases involving gunshot wounds were also treated. On average, the hospital’s two doctors, one nurse and eight assistants handle 45 major surgeries a month, many of them amputations. During the hospital’s second and third years, the number of patients served more than doubled.

To relieve the pressure on McKendry’s staff, the hospital opened a nursing school in 1910. After a two-month probationary period, trainee nurses work on wards during the day and attend classes at night in exchange for room and board and a small stipend. This program is only open to white nursing students.

Nurses who complete their training at McKendry are well-received by those in the medical community and have no difficulty finding employment in less remote locations, according to the National Park Service’s history of the site.

After the Nursing School was established, the hospital’s campus began to grow, initially with nurses’ quarters and tennis courts, the dean’s residence, staff quarters, a cold storage building, and a garage to service new ambulances and trucks. The hospital grounds include terraced lawns and gardens, separated by stone walls and connected by stone stairs and paths.

The heat initially provided by coal-fired fireplaces and the lighting provided by a system of lamps that delivered carbide and aqueous solutions throughout the building were upgraded as the 1920s approached.

By the 1920s, the construction of new roads in the area, the increasing popularity of automobiles, and the construction of several new private hospitals in cities near the canyon provided more convenient options for those seeking medical care.

McKendree Hospital continued to rely primarily on rail service to transport patients and supplies, with procedures and protocols changed in the 1930s to allow treatment of victims of the epidemic to augment the dwindling supply of coal mining patients when the New River Canyon Mine began.

Even though coal production is starting to decline, hospitals are still busy.

“The hospital is almost always full of patients,” Thelma Louise Cashion, a former trainee nurse, said in a reflection on the site’s National Park Service history.

After patients were greeted by nurses at McKendree’s C&O side panel, they were escorted to the hospital, where they were assigned wards.

“There were large white and black male wards and smaller white and black female wards,” recalls Cashion. “Comprehensive private rooms are provided for women who give birth there and their babies. Most of the patients so far have been men with very serious and traumatic injuries, including cuts and burns and broken limbs requiring amputation. In 1933, in During the typhoid epidemic, hospitals were overcrowded with patients.”

By 1941, coal mining within the canyon had diminished to the point where the state closed the McKendry Hospital. However, the building and its grounds remain open with a new role as a home for West Virginia’s elderly and infirm men and women of color. It employs 16 people and provides basic needs for about 100 people for the next 15 years.

In 1956, the geriatric unit moved to Huntington and moved into the building formerly known as the West Virginia Home for Children of Color.

In the years after the McKendree site was abandoned, bricks and other building materials from the hospital building and other nearby buildings were removed and reused or kept as souvenirs.

By 1969, the site was in ruins, and much of what remained was later leveled by Joseph Bury’s estate, according to the National Park Service. The McKendree site was later acquired by the National Park Service and is now part of New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.

Today, part of the subterranean structure of the hospital basement remains, but is open to the elements and marked with graffiti. The moss-covered stone wall sections that once preserved the terraces and enclosed gardens can also be found along with the cornerstones of the outbuildings and the exterior stairs connecting the terraces.

Trees, vines and bushes have restored much of the site, but from the remains of the retaining wall that used to be the edge of the driveway to the hospital entrance, a long stretch of mild New River white water can be seen 100 feet below place to hear.

Today, reaching that location is possible, but difficult. A high-clearance all-wheel or four-wheel drive vehicle is recommended, especially during or after rain.

The site is accessible by taking Secondary Route 25 (a narrow and sometimes extremely rough dirt road also known as the McKendree-Thurmond Road) to an unmarked dirt road fork from Route 25 down to the New River and former hospital. It is recommended to stop a short distance at the fork, then walk about a third of a mile, take a few possible intersections and take a left until the end of the road, then continue to the left through a small forest until the remains of the hospital appear to enter Vision, the premise is that tourists carefully observe.

The southern end of Route 25 is closest to the hospital site is a paved road, in this case W.Va. 41. The intersection is on the left, just east of where the W.Va. 41 bridge crosses the New River. But the southern end of the road is also by far the roughest, narrowest, and least maintained section. A better option is to head south on Route 25 from the Thurmond end, where the road is wider, gravel and relatively well maintained, then cross the New River on the Stone Cliff Bridge and continue to the tiny Thayer community.

From Thayer, drive about three miles to the unmarked downhill turnoff on the right. It’s the only turnout that appears to allow a full-size vehicle to pass over long distances, and it appears to extend all the way down the slope.

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