Doctors battled to keep Truckee healthy
Throughout Truckee’s growing years, and well in the 1900s, medical care was a much needed, but often hard to find, necessity of life. Injuries, disease, unsanitary conditions, and alcohol all led to lifestyles that shortened people’s lives.
From birth, life in a pioneer mountain town was a struggle. Infant mortality was very high, and children died during childhood at an alarming rate. Doctors were often unable to do little more than treat the symptoms.
Dangerous childhood diseases such as mumps, measles, whooping cough, scarlet fever, chicken pox, and diphtheria were quite frequent, and epidemics of colds and flu ran rampant through the schools every winter.
Once a boy went to work, which was often as young as 12, but more often 16 after 1900, the threat of injury on the job was incredibly high. If you worked on the railroad, there were hundreds of ways a body could be injured on the moving steel and wood of the trains.
As tracks were being laid in June of 1868 a man was crushed between two moving cars, requiring extensive medical care. In 1869 a conductor had his legs mangled so badly in an accident in the Truckee yards that amputation was the only alternative to save his life.
The doctors of the 1870s, such as Dr. Weed, Dr. Jones, Dr. Goss, and Dr. Curless, had just learned a variety of new surgery and antiseptic techniques in the recently completed Civil War. From then on through the early ’20s, it seemed as if the railroad was at war on human bodies, mostly its own workers.
It was so bad that in 1873 the Central Pacific studied moving its Sacramento hospital up to Truckee. At least once a railroader was injured he could count on decent medical care. The Central Pacific contracted with private doctors such as Dr. William Curless in Truckee to provide quick and competent care.
Employee benefits were unheard of in the lumber industry. The forests were full of danger from falling 200-foot-tall trees, to moving five-foot diameter logs that could crush a man in a blink of an eye. The sawmills were no better; it was common to see a man with a missing finger or two and losing an eye was a frequent occurrence.
For those who worked outside in the winter such as icemen, loggers or railroaders, the danger of frostbite or freezing to death required constant prevention. Snow sports, mostly children flying down icy hills on sleds and toboggans, contributed to the winter medical caseload.
Dr. Goss had a rough time in December of 1874 when a Prosser Creek man went on a drunken bender, got beaten up in several fights, then bit Dr. Goss severely when he tried to treat his injuries. A week later, Dr. Goss was bitten by an unknown insect that laid him out for two weeks. He ended up being a patient of Dr. Curless’s for a week.
Alcohol flowed freely in Truckee’s saloons, and that often led to fights and violence. Mostly the doctors sewed injured flesh up with a few dozen stitches, but often enough, bullet wounds required more than basic surgery.
Truckee wouldn’t get its own hospital until 1906, and that only lasted for four years. For follow-up private medical care, patients could go to Reno, Auburn, Sacramento or San Francisco.
Hobart Mills, the large company-owned lumber town north of Truckee, had a small hospital after 1900, but it was used mostly by the lumber company employees. Floriston, the site of the large paper mill down the river, also had its own hospital and doctor.
For those unable to afford care, the Nevada County Hospital provided treatment at taxpayer expense. Often those who were taken to the County Hospital in Nevada City never returned, usually a victim of a rough lifestyle.
Truckee’s doctors preferred treating patients at their offices, but often enough they had to go to the patients to stabilize them and prepare them for transporting. Night or day, summer or winter, the hurried knock on the door would send the doctors on their missions. Dr. Curless often made trips to Boca, Lake Tahoe, Donner Summit, or out into the isolated woods’ camps to treat patients.
With the hard work required to sustain a life and family in the mountains, rheumatism was common in older people. The cure was to journey to one of the popular hot springs resorts at Sierraville, Genoa, Richardson’s Hot Springs near Chico, or Tuscany Hot Springs near Red Bluff. A week of soaking in hot mineral water went a long way to relieving an aching body.
The one health-sustaining staple that Truckee always had was drug stores, as many as three at one time. These so- called pharmacies were often owned by the doctors themselves. In Dr. Curless’s case, his brother George ran the drug store for several decades in the 1870s to 1890s. You didn’t need a prescription for most drugs.
Dr. Weed’s store was the first drug store in Truckee in 1868, and as with our modern drug stores, you could buy much more than just drugs. The medicines available were mostly based on natural remedies and herbal medicine, but many were from dubious sources at best. You could buy Drake’s, Hostetter’s, Walker’s, Huffland’s, bitters and other “medicines required to make a sick man well, an old man young, and renew the Bloom of Youth.”
Hall’s sarsaparilla, yellow dock and iodine of potassium were touted to cure neuralgia, scrofula, boils, gout, female weaknesses, cancers, rheumatic and mercurial pains, and all diseases arising from a disordered state of the blood or liver. George Curless stocked barrels of sulphur, bluestone, and chloride of lime to treat patient’s ills.
From 1887 to 1906, Dr. Zimmer of Reno operated a leprosy sanatorium and research facility along the Truckee River east of Truckee. Zimmer worked with sagebrush and other herbal cures, over the years with moderate success.
Conditions in Truckee seemed to be fairly healthy for the first two decades, based on the somewhat biased local newspaper accounts. However by the 1890s, disease had replaced injuries as the top priority for the medical community. Scarlet fever, smallpox, typhoid, and chronic dysentery would break out in local epidemics, with little that doctors could do but treat the symptoms and let things run their course.
Residents of an entire household might be quarantined inside for weeks at a time until the contagious diseases had run their courses. At times, there was a pest house on the edge of town, where contagious patients were housed.
Severe colds that lasted for months during the winter led to many Truckee merchants and wealthier citizens taking long winter vacations in warmer climates. These colds could turn into fatal pneumonia in the elderly, as indeed it was the cause of many deaths during the 1800s.
Epidemics of the flu, then known as lagrippe, spread rapidly with effects that could last several weeks. Even the doctors came down with it, and suffered with their patients.
Much of the problem came from unsanitary water supplies, which is why you didn’t drink untreated Truckee water, but you could safely drink the processed beer, whiskey, tea or coffee using boiled water. Outhouses were everywhere, breeding flies that would bring disease on the wing. So when you got ill from one of these agonizing diseases you suffered from many other conditions as well. In many cases an illness today that would be over in a few days might keep the patient bedridden several weeks or a month or two.
Animals were in yards everywhere: horses, dairy cows, chickens, dogs, and a few hogs to eat the garbage added to the stench that pervaded Truckee at times. Garbage was thrown outside in piles all winter, and only when the roads out of town opened could the garbage be taken out and dumped.
It was a wonder that everyone in town wasn’t sick with all of the unsanitary conditions that people were living in. But the solution was coming. Next time ” Truckee flushes the outhouse.
Gordon Richards is the historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. Past articles by Gordon Richards are available at sierrasun.com in the archives. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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