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In the fall of 1849, Placerville, then “Old Dry Diggings,” had grown into a thriving mining camp.
The mostly robust and youthful population, typically under the age of 25, enjoyed good health and required little medical care. When the winter of 1849-50 set in, many miners returned home; many remained, choosing to tough it out in makeshift shelters. Most of these men suffered greatly that winter when heavy rains prevented the delivery of crucial provisions.
A poor diet of saleratus biscuits, fatback and beans, coupled with long hours of standing waste-deep in frigid water, ruined the health of most miners. New arrivals suffered malnutrition and fatigue after the brutal journey to California. Many who traveled by land and sea contracted diphtheria, typhoid, malaria and other diseases. They battled scurvy, dysentery and rheumatism. Cholera epidemics in the 1850s also struck down the hardiest of miners and wiped out entire families.
Sadly, the cost of medical care prevented many residents from seeking out a doctor altogether. Others, severely wounded or critically ill, found it impossible to pay for their stay in a makeshift hospital. In 1849, four Placerville physicians testified before the Judges of the Court of Sessions that their daily services cost $16. “Board and lodging for a sick person” cost $20, $30 or more a day. Thus, for a 15-day illness, a patient could easily run up a bill of $700 or more. This far exceeded the average miner’s earnings for the entire year!
Until 1855, El Dorado County residents paid a heavy tax for the support of the indigent who had to be taken to Marine Hospital in San Francisco. In 1855, California law made provisions for each county to care for its own indigent patients. The El Dorado County Board of Supervisors, on June 9, 1855, awarded the contract “to take care of and provide for the impoverished ailing residents of the county” to doctors Asa Clark and Obed Harvey. The contract stipulated that the doctors furnish an appropriate building for the sum of $3,500 for a period of one year. Subsequently, they rented the Broadway House, a hotel in Upper Placerville and made arrangements for the administration of the county’s first hospital.
Throughout the early years, “the County Hospital became known by word of mouth as one of the best managed in the entire state,” asserts the History of El Dorado County Hospital 1855-1974. In 1862, a set of buildings set on eight acres on Quartz Hill replaced the former building. During the 1870s, the sanatorium encompassed a main hospital, an “out-patient clinic,” and residences. When tuberculosis ran rampant, the hospital added a “pest house,” or isolation ward, to treat the inflicted.
The County Hospital served the community well until fire destroyed it in 1912. After partial reconstruction, fire destroyed it again in 1924. An increased number of “charity patients” during the Great Depression and the early years of World War II prompted the construction of a larger and more “modern” facility in 1946. A new building, added in 1965, housed a surgical suite and up-to-date X-ray equipment. Along with an outlay of $300,000, these improvements made the 64-bed facility “a natural to become a community hospital which could serve the total needs of the area...”
Subsequently, County Hospital became Pioneer Community Hospital. In 1972, Universal Health Systems leased the facility and changed its name to the Mother Lode Medical Center Hospital. The company lost its accreditation in 1978, forcing the hospital’s closure. That year, the county announced its plans to convert the former hospital into a senior citizens’ center. The center remains an integral part of the community.