Fort morphs into hospital

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Some buildings at Walla Walla's VA Medical Center are old as adobe dirt.

The grounds originally were a military fort - one of the earliest, but not the first.

Although not officially a hospital until the early 1920s, much of the history of the Walla Walla VA precedes Walla Walla itself.

Semblances of forts in the area date to 1818, when the Northwest Company built a trading post for trappers at the confluence of the Columbia and Walla Walla rivers. Two others replaced it until Fort Walla Walla - as it was known in later years - was abandoned because of Indian uprisings in 1855.

To provide a military escort for treaty negotiations, a temporary camp was built in September 1856 along what now is Five Mile Road south of Mill Creek. That was the first Fort Walla Walla, according to Robert ``Steve' Stevenson, a former Medical Center employee and historian.

A month later, the fort was moved to the present Main Street in downtown Walla Walla. The southern side of the compound stretched from the current First Avenue to about Palouse Street.

Included were barracks, stables, officers' quarters and various sheds.

As a deterrent to Indian uprisings, additional soldiers arrived the following year and camped on a hill southwest of downtown. The next spring, the fort was moved to that final location - which would become the site of the VA Medical Center decades later.

The original 1858 buildings were made of adobe brick. A sawmill was added later to mill lumber from the Blue Mountains for construction.

Five of the 1858 officers' quarters, four of which are duplexes, remain today. The buildings were painted white after wood was laid over the adobe shortly after they were built.

The buildings are adjacent to the southern edge of the central parade grounds, where mounted cavalry soldiers would drill. Barracks were built on the north side of the grounds.

Other structures erected then or added over the years include stables, a blacksmith's shop, granary, ordinance storehouse and sheds.

A total of 15 of the fort-era buildings and two off the present site exist today.

The 9th Infantry soldiers were stationed at the fort to suppress uprisings among Native Americans. Many troops who were killed are buried at the fort's cemetery at nearby Fort Walla Walla Park.

All but a small detachment were withdrawn after 1865, following the Civil War. According to an account provided by the medical center, "Congress tried to abandon the fort in 1867, but listed the post in Oregon rather than Washington. By the time the error was discovered, the Modoc tribe was warring in southern Oregon, and the fort was regarrisoned with troops from the 21st Infantry Regiment. The fort remained in use for the next 37 years."

Although it officially closed on Sept. 28, 1910, some troops trained there during the early part of World War I.

The grounds - which were transferred to jurisdiction under the Department of the Interior - also were used temporarily to house patients from St. Mary Hospital after the facility was destroyed by fire in 1915. The former fort also was home to the public health service medical facility.

A new hospital in town

Veterans hospitals to care for wounded soldiers sprouted up throughout the country after World War I.

Walla Walla's Commercial Club came up with the idea of converting the old fort into such a facility.

Supported by John W. Summers, an influential U.S. Congress member from Walla Walla, a bill authorizing the Walla Walla hospital was signed on March 4, 1921.

The grounds were transferred to the Bureau of Public Health, then to the U.S. Veterans Bureau.

"The buildings were converted for hospital use during the winter of 1921-'22; a task complicated by severe weather," according to the VA's historical account.

"Despite the difficulties, the staff accepted their first patients on May 10, 1922."

In the early years, the hospital primarily was a tuberculosis treatment facility.

The government added structures in the 1920s and early '30s, including a new administration building, main hospital building and recreation building.

During World War II, wounded, active duty soldiers were treated at an adjacent hospital - the largest and most short-lived of any in Walla Walla's history.

McCaw Hospital was built in 1942 and started accepting patients early the following year. Spread out over 189 acres in the area of what now is the Poplar Street extension, the complex consisted of 88 buildings and averaged about 1,000 employees.

McCaw ultimately was enlarged to 1,850 beds and treated an estimated 16,000 patients until closing in November 1945. Existing patients were transferred to other facilities and the buildings were moved to other areas of town.

The VA hospital initially had a capacity for 250 tuberculosis patients, which reached 500 and was a busy place, according to Stevenson. ``It was a very populated facility,' he said.

But as antibiotics were developed in the 1940s and '50s, the need for inpatient treatment subsided.

The facility was designated a General Medical and Surgical Hospital in July 1959.

Stevenson doesn't know how many patients initially were hospitalized, but said the number of inpatient beds started decreasing in the late 1950s.

By 1979 when Stevenson came to the VA as director of voluntary service and public relations, the hospital was designated as a 150-bed facility. He remembers about 120 or 130 beds in use at any one time, with patients on all three floors of the main building.

The hospital offered surgical services and an operating room, employing two staff surgeons.

"But we closed the surgical facility there in the early to mid-1990s because we weren't doing enough procedures there to justify the surgical service," he said.

Although audiology and optometric services were added in the late 1980s and '90s, the facility continued to lose full-time patients.

"Other things dwindled away because of the changes in the provision of health care," said Stevenson, who retired in 2001. "You don't need to be hospitalized for the things you once needed to be hospitalized for. It's just a progressive thing."

Because of the progression to more outpatient care, the clinic was remodeled in the early 1990s, according to Stevenson. ``We greatly expanded our facility for ambulatory services,' he said.

The hospital now provides medical care for nearly 13,000 veterans a year in the hospital's 42,000-square-mile service area spanning Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

The hospital also has attained designation for 30 nursing home beds, now located in the main hospital building. Six acute-care beds remain, in addition to nine for psychiatric patients and 22 in residential programs, such as substance abuse.

Currently, 27 buildings used for food service, support services, engineering, warehouse, laundry, chapel and storage comprise the hospital grounds. About 322 full-time workers and 43 part-time workers are employed. The facility operates with an annual budget of $35 million.

Attempts to dismantle the hospital have been thwarted by political clout - so far. In 1987, U.S. Rep. Tom Foley led a successful fight against downgrading the center from full-service status. Also, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and former U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., last year helped convince the VA to study further a controversial proposal to contract out many services.

It took an act of Congress to change the hospital's name in 1996. Dubbed the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Center, the facility now honors the World War II Medal of Honor winner who was born at the fort on Aug. 23, 1883.

Although placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, many of the old buildings need of paint, new roofs and other repair.

Officers' quarters have been added to the Most Endangered Historic Properties list. The buildings once were rented to hospital personnel, but now are vacant.

"Now that they're not being rented, there is no revenue to maintain them," Stevenson explained. "The VA is funded based on patient census. That doesn't begin to stretch far enough to do the maintenance on this historic compound."

In the beginning ...

Editor's note: The following are excerpts from the annual report from ``U.S. Veterans' Hospital #85, Walla Walla, Wash.,' prepared by heads of various departments during the facility's first spring and summer in 1922:

  • The total area is about six hundred forty acres. The hospital area of approximately thirty-five acres is situated about one and six-tenths miles from the center of Walla Walla...
  • In the early part of August, 1921, the work of demolition and repair of (20 buildings) for patients' wards and personnel quarters began. The area of ground around the hospital was being sufficiently cleared of rubbish by station labor to render them passable...
  • In the month of November 1921, the project of construction on the new Semi-Ambulant ward, the Ambulant ward, central heating plant, laundry and the septic tank, started under contract to be completed not later than May 28, 1922, and although the contractors were, from beginning to almost the finish, greatly handicapped because of the cold weather, snow storms and difficult transportation of building material, they carried on their work well and except for a few minor details, finished on time, May 28, 1922...
  • On about April 25, 1922, this (medical) office began organizing its personnel for the various departments, under the impression that the hospital would be open for reception of patients by May 1st, but owing to delay caused by lack of certain equipment and professional personnel, the opening for patients was postponed until May 10th, when, in accordance with telegraphic instructions from the Director under date of May 6th, 1922, the hospital was opened to receive patients. The formal opening day was June 9th, and was largely attended by people from all over the thirteenth district. The hospital has been functioning since that time satisfactorily; however considerable inconvenience has been caused on account of lack of a dentist, an eye, ear, nose and throat specialist, an X-ray technician, neuro-psychiatrist and an inadequate number of nurses...
  • At present (July 25, 1922) there are sixty-seven patients and thirty-three vacant beds and it is believed that these beds will be occupied at an early date; this office only awaits authority from the Bureau and the additional personnel, already requested, to operate the two new wards at full capacity...
  • Prescribed rest periods are strictly observed, exercise, heliotherapy prescribed and results of same are charted. Passes to eligible patients are given once a week, not to exceed six hours in duration and expiring not later than 9:30 p.m...
  • At present there are six medical officers, besides the Medical Officer in Charge, on duty here, and we are conducting a Tuberculosis school, as outlined by the National Tuberculosis Association, with good results. General conferences are held every Friday, which greatly facilitates the functioning of this hospital...
  • ...it is recommended that the Bureau's plan of assigning one nurse to every ten patients be put into effect here and, if possible, nurses who have had experience in Tuberculosis be assigned...
  • Regarding new construction, it is recommended that at least two new wards be constructed at this station, in view of the fact that the conditions for caring for Turbercular patients seem almost ideal...
  • It is recommended that the roads on the reservation be put in first class condition before the rainy season, which begins usually in October...
  • Although the formal opening was not until June 9, 1922, the Dietetic Department actually began operations on April 27th. Seven nurses, one doctor, and several of the personnel had arrived and the mess was started on April 28, 1922. I (chief dietician) arrived on May 7th ... We have at present (July 24, 1922) 70 patients - all turbercular...
  • (The report lists 2,281 total rations for patients, officers, nurses and other employees in May at an expense of $1,583.95; 3,866 total rations for June costing $2,892.62.)...
  • We are especially fortunate in regard to our kitchen and mess equipment. The main kitchen is, I believe, the finest of any Veterans' Hospital in the United States...
  • There are at the present time twenty-two employees in the mess department...
  • Taking everything together, climate, situation, equipment, excellent market, and an abundance of milk, eggs, fruit, and green vegetables, there seems no reason why our patients should not get well and strong, if it is at all possible...
  • Community contacts have been largely through the agency of the Red Cross which has planned various bits of work with different organizations. The Elks have given a player piano. The Commercial Club is furnishing ash trays. The Sunshine Club has promised to sponsor the decorations of the sitting room in the semi-ambulant building, and the Legion Auxiliary has assumed responsibility for the two sitting rooms in the ambulant building...
  • The Red Cross has helped plan picnics and secure concerts and various entertainments throughout the months of June and July...
  • The Red Cross workers plan to see each one of the patients every day, giving them opportunity to ask for anything which they need or to bring up any problems...
  • Upon the arrival of an in-patient at the hospital he is directed to the admitting office where he is examined by the officer of the day for signs of communicable disease...After being registered the in-patient is taken by an attendant to the Ward to which he is assigned...Far advanced cases are not subjected to the usual routine of admission, but after being examined by the officer of the day, are taken to the ward to which they are assigned...
  • During the period from June 30, 1921, to June 30, 1922, eleven Clerks, Typists, and Stenographers have been placed on duty. Four have been separated from the service, and at the present time there are eight on duty...there are three offices now being used by the departments and sections under the supervision of the acting Chief Clerk...
  • There is on hand and in use the following motor vehicles for transportation: (The list includes two motorcycles, two ambulances, four trucks, two Ford touring cars and a 30-passenger Riker bus.) There are no animals or animal drawn vehicles at this station.
  • Repair and Upkeep of Buildings: The Superintendent of Construction, from the office of the Supervising Architect, Treasury Department, has submitted the following amounts as expended in remodeling buildings at this station: (The listed repairs, painting, etc., on 22 buildings, roads, walkways and other projects totaled about $170,000. Seven additional buildings were recommended for remodeling to put them in ``habitable' condition)...
  • Six hundred and forty acres comprises the reservation. Four hundred (400) acres have been leased to an individual. At present thirty-five (35) acres is used and under cultivation by this hospital for lawns and flower beds. Heretofore the water for cultivation has been supplied from the City of Walla Walla, but this hospital will install a pump and will utilize the water from a small creek that flows thru the reservation. The balance of the land is being cleared of obnoxious weeds by the process of cutting and burning when possible...
  • Alcohol and whiskey are stored in a room set aside in Building No. 21, used as a storehouse. The doors and windows are barred and locked. Narcotics are in small iron safes and stored in drug room which is also locked...
  • Commissioned personnel on duty in the United States Veterans' Hospital Number 85, Walla Walla, Wash., during the fiscal year ending June 30, 1922: (Surgeon John V. Greene, P.A. Surgeon Joseph G. Noble, Asst. Surgeon G.C. Daniel, P.A. Surgeon Robert W. Bell. Four consultant doctors also were listed.)
  • Memo to medical Officer in Charge: Surgical Report. I have been in charge of the Surgical department this station from May 25th, 1922, to June 28th, 1922. Beg to state that no surgical operation has been performed during the above period. Respectfully, J.G. Noble...
  • The first nurse arrived at this station on April 28th and in the next two days others arrived making a total of seven, including the Acting Chief Nurse.
  • The hospital opened with two patients on May 10th and on June 30th the number had increased to fifty three.
  • The hospital as it stands consists of two floors in separate buildings - one Ward (69) is divided into an infirmary ward, on the East side, and a semi-ambulant ward, on the West side. Ward #68 is divided into an ambulant ward, on the East side, and a receiving ward, on the West side.
  • There are two day nurses and one night nurse in each building. The day nurses working eight hours each and the night nurses twelve hours...
  • The department of Occupational Therapy was started May 15, 1922. The personnel consists of one aide, an Assistant Chief. The building assigned to this department is large and cheerful. There is an office, sales room and five large work rooms. The work has been confined to the wards alone because of the lack of supplies and insufficient personnel. The principal crafts employed are rake knitting, basketry, hand weaving, leather and bead work. The spirit of the work is very good. Thirty-five patients are working, most of whom have had to buy their own materials. The doctors are co-operative and very helpful. A greater variety of work can be offered when more aides have been assigned and requisitions have been filled. Lack of materials has been a great handicap.

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