Early health care in Laramie

The first people in the Laramie area in 1867-68 included a large number of young men. They lived in hastily-built barracks at Ft. Sanders or dormitories near the Union Pacific Railroad yards for workers.

Their youth did not lend immunity to some of the diseases typical of the last half of the 1800’s: typhus, diphtheria, smallpox, influenza, and others. The close quarters they lived in made conditions ideal for epidemics.

That, and the high rate of workplace injuries, made it imperative for both the US Army and the UPRR to provide doctors and hospitals. At Ft. Sanders, a hospital was up and running by 1866, with a civilian physician, Edward W. Avery, later replaced by Dr. Hiram Latham, a military surgeon. In 1868 the UPRR provided a medical facility in Laramie, replacing a mobile hospital that accompanied the earlier track-laying crews.

The doctors were actually called “surgeons,” as any frontier doctor needed to be skilled in amputations. Two months before Laramie was founded, Dr. J.H. Finfrock and Dr. J.W. Calder advertised their services out of Dale City, Dakota Territory.  Dr. Finfrock had been at Ft. Halleck with the military prior to moving on to treat railroaders exclusively.

The first passenger train came into Laramie on May 10, 1868, and by July 21, the newspaper mentioned that a UPRR hospital was going up, in a tent on 2nd Street. Very soon it was replaced by a wooden two story hospital in the rail yards.

An annoyance for both Ft. Sanders and the railroad were the number of indigent travelers and others that they were forced to treat since there was no other health care available in the county. They tried with limited success to get the county commissioners to pay for these unbudgeted treatments and hospitalizations. It got so bad that in 1870 the UPRR decided to end its support of its Laramie hospital.

The building was given over to Dr. Finfrock who ran it as a private hospital for a short time, before he went into private practice at an office (and pharmacy) in Laramie. He, and other Laramie doctors made house calls. Unlike the military or early railroad workers, most patients now had homes and families who could care for the sick and wounded; there was less need for a hospital. The former UPRR hospital became a sort of “ward” operated by a non-physician contractor. All Laramie physicians could direct patients to it. The local newspaper continued to call it the “UPRR Hospital” even though the railroad support had ended.

It isn’t clear how well patients were treated at that hospital since there was now no doctor or surgeon directly in charge. In fact, there are documented cases during this time of the UPRR taking its wounded or sick employees to the railroad-owned Thornburgh Hotel attached to the depot until they could be put on a train for treatment in Denver.

The former UPRR Hospital had been closed for several years before it was reopened in 1876 as St. Joseph’s Hospital by the Sisters of Charity who had been persuaded to come to Laramie. They bought land at 15th and Grand, and opened at that new location in 1883. But they ran into financial trouble, partially due to strong anti-Catholic sentiments that succeeded in forcing the county stop paying for treatment of county indigents there; their hospital closed in 1896. Sister Joanna Bruner was the driving force behind St. Joseph’s; a street close to the present Ivinson Memorial Hospital is named for her.

In 1900 there was a serious typhoid epidemic at Tie Siding, where a large number of men were employed in building a tunnel to improve the railroad grade from the Summit down into Laramie. The railroad responded with a mobile hospital in a renovated rail car. Just as the epidemic was dying down, there was a serious explosion at the construction site with at least one fatality reported on November 10, 1900; many of the injured were treated at the mobile hospital.

By 1914 there were four separate hospitals in Laramie, the private Sydenham, McCormack, and Grand Avenue hospitals as well as the county hospital at 17th and Grand. The latter was actually a nursing home for the indigent and an isolation ward (“pest house”) for those with contagious diseases. While there might have been round-the-clock nursing staff, surgeries were usually performed in doctor’s offices. A full-service hospital didn’t materialize until after 1916, when Laramie philanthropist Edward Ivinson gave four city lots on Thornburgh Street (now Ivinson Avenue) and $50,000 toward the construction of a hospital that was to be built in memory of his recently-deceased wife Jane.

By Judy Knight

Caption: Photo courtesy Libarary of Congress