Hamilton Health Care System’s history began in 1919 when a worldwide flu epidemic shattered local complacency about the need for a hospital. The trip to Chattanooga was long and difficult at best, and too much for some. Under the listing for “Hospitals,” the Dalton city directory stated three simple words: “We need one.”
In the type of cooperative partnership that would be repeated over and over in the decades to come, the area’s largest employers, local doctors and area citizens came together to fill a community need.
Crown Cotton Mills, Elk Mills and several physicians donated property and funds for the new $75,000 hospital. Individuals and organizations furnished rooms. Hamilton Memorial Hospital, named for Crown Cotton Mills founder George W. Hamilton Sr., was dedicated May 21, 1921 — on National Hospital Day. At the time, the hospital, with its Spanish-style stucco finish and tile roof, faced north on Waugh Street between Pentz and Selvidge.
Six-hundred-and-three signed the guest register for the dedication, but a larger number, estimated at 1,000, toured the building. Guests walked across polished hardwood floors to inspect the furnished ward, one of four, and to visit patient rooms, a small dining room and kitchen. A freight-sized elevator next to the nurses’ station carried them to the second floor where they could view the operating room overlooking Waugh Street.
The hospital made clinical strides in the 1920s, adding a fully equipped X-ray room and new gas and oxygen equipment. To ensure a well-trained staff, it established a school for registered nurses in affiliation with Cincinnati General Hospital.
Then came the collapse of the stock market. On Oct. 24, 1929, known as “Black Monday,” the value of shares on the New York Stock Exchange plummeted. Dalton and the hospital weathered the initial shock, but as the nation entered the third decade of the century amid a deepening Depression, hospital conditions were worsening created by an increase of free care. In April 1934, the hospital was forced to close its doors due to a lack of funds.
The hospital stayed closed for 10 months, until efforts were made by the Civitan Club and Junior Chamber of Commerce to mobilize community support to reopen. After an agreement by the county and city to each provide $1,000 per year to cover uncompensated care, Hamilton reopened on March 4, 1935, as a nonprofit organization.
During the 10-month closing of the hospital, health care for the growing community of 14,000 was a challenge. Without the hospital’s operating room at their disposal, physicians were forced to perform some operations in their offices while referring complicated surgeries out of town. Predating the general practice of outpatient surgery by 40 years, the patient arrived at the local doctor’s office in the morning, underwent surgery and was sent home in an ambulance, still under the anesthetic’s effect. Accompanying the patient was a private-duty nurse who stayed as many days as needed in the home. Those requiring major emergency surgery were the most vulnerable. They faced a high-speed, life-or-death trip to Chattanooga or Rome.
The hospital reopened with a medical staff of 11 physicians and a lean staff of nine, comprised of a superintendent, operating room nurse, one combination lab technician and dietitian, one night nurse, two registered nurses (who earned a dollar a day plus room and board), one orderly, one cook and one maid. Major and minor operating room case fees were set at $12.50 and $7.50 respectively, and weekly medicine and dressing charges were set at $2 each.