The Seamen's Hospital

On the bank of the Miramichi River at Douglastown stands an interesting stone building with a cupula on top. Now used by St. Samuel's Parish as a church hall, this building was originally a Seamen's Hospital, completed in 1830. The land on which it stands was conveyed by James Gilmour and Alexander Rankin. The Hospital was built by the British Admiralty.

The purpose of this marine hospital was to tend to sick and disabled seamen who came to the Miramichi and needed medical attention.

Prior to the construction of this hospital, sailors were boarded at private homes. Expenses were paid by a Seamen's Fund set up by means of a tax being imposed on incoming vessels.

As is the case in almost any undertaking some people were opposed. One letter to the Editor of the Chatham Gleaner called the proposed hospital "a trophy of our folly and extravagance." Another letter suggested that "bills should be paid before it is contemplated erecting a palace for the reception of some half dozen sailors."

One writer disagreed, saying "We want a building that will tell future generations the extent of our commerce and stamp with the epithet humanity the era that produced the Seamen's Hospital at Miramichi."

In 1830 the new hospital opened under the direction of Dr. Alexander Key who came to Chatham in 1816 at the age of 21. According to historian James Fraser, he was granted a lot of land in the Parish of Newcastle.

In 1833 Dr. John Fotheringham and Dr. John Thomson were also serving the hospital. Dr. Thomson was attached to it until his death in 1884. He graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1832 and came to the Miramichi where he began practising medicine at John Hea's Hotel in Chatham. He moved to Newcastle in 1835 and married Mary Ann Abrams.

In 1849 there were thirty patients at the hospital. Some of them remained as long as a year. According to Mrs. Nora Galloway, writing in the Gleaner of May 7, 1957 many of the sailors, not being well enough to sail with their ships, stayed in the hospital throughout the winter months. When their ship returned the next year, they sailed with her again. During their long stay at the marine hospital, they carved model ships which were placed in glass bottles. In 1957, when Mrs. Galloway wrote the article, some of their handiwork was still in existence and may be to this day.

James Fraser in "Gretna Green" tells that by 1847 the hospital was often used as a social centre. "Tea soirees were held for the relief of the starving population of the highlands and islands of Scotland and the suffering population of Ireland. The Chatham Amateur Band played and Mrs. Richard Hutchison and other ladies supplied the food."

In February, 1849 a letter to the Gleaner Editor from "A friend of the Indians" asked help for the Indians who were suffering from smallpox. The following week the young men of the town and the Chatham Amateur Band held a concert at the Marine Hospital. Dr. John Stafford Benson and Rev. John Sweeney were given over ten pounds for the relief of the Indians.

In February of 1879 the editor of the Miramichi Advance wrote an article about the hospital, saying the conditions were very poor. Dr. John Thomson, who had at that time been medical Supervisor of the hospital for 46 years wrote a defence.

In 1884 Dr. J. S. Benson was appointed supervisor, following the death of Dr. Thomson. Other local doctors connected with the hospital were Dr. Joe Benson and Dr. Patrick Duffy.

The Seamen's Hospital closed in 1921; arrangements were made to treat ill sailors at Hotel Dieu Hospital in Chatham. The last patient at the marine hospital was Robert Flett of Nelson.

In 1923 the federal government sold the old hospital to St. Samuel's Parish. The price was said to be $3,000.

Today the building fulfills the same functions as most other parish halls, with religion classes, card parties and other activities.

The interior is very interesting and it is evident the workmanship was excellent. Rev. Thomas McKendy, the parish priest, remarks that the beams supporting the roof are shaped like those on the hull of a ship. "The roof looks like an inverted ship," he says.

The largest room, now an auditorium, faces the river. This was originally the main ward; it must have been a fine vantage point for the seamen to watch the ships.

The windows are long with the wooden shutters on the inside. The frame itself goes to the floor. The doors and doorknobs are the originals. The fireplaces, which were the only means of heat, have been taken out and two furnaces are used. "Heating costs are very high," says Father McKendy.

Although the walls have been covered with wallboard as a solution to the crumbling plaster, Father McKendy points out that no irrevocable changes have been made. "If enough funds were available, restoration would be no problem," he remarks.

He feels the old Seamen's Hospital is probably one of the most valuable and interesting buildings in the province. Very few people would disagree.

Other Early Stone Houses

(Wyse House, Douglastown)

Not far from the Seaman's Hospital is the John Wyse house, built in 1820. Also in Douglastown are two stone cottages constructed by 1825 for employees of Gilmour and Rankin. One is unchanged and the other is covered with shingles.

MacDonald Farm in Bartibogue was built before 1823. This building has been restored by the provincial government and is open to the public during the tourist season.

Chatham's John T. Williston house was built in 1824 and the Miramichi Golf Club in Bushville, originally the home of Judge Thomas H. Peters, was built the following year.

MacTavish Farm in South Esk was built between 1825 and 1830. This old farmhouse was restored in the 1940's by Mr. and Mrs. James Sheafe and subsequent owners were Lord Beaverbrook and Mrs. David Horwitz-MacLeod. The present owner is Dr. John Goodfellow.

The Willard, or Fish house on the corner of Pleasant and Jane Streets is the oldest house in Newcastle. Built in 1817, it was constructed of bricks and later covered with stucco.

The Rankin house in Kouchibouguac, owned by the Tweedie family, was built in 1839 by Colin Rankin.

(Acknowledgements: James Fraser, Mrs. E. F. MacAllister and Rev. T. J. McKendy).

(Northumberland News, April 14, 1982)

Copyright © Lois F. Martin, 1985. All rights reserved.