On the banks of the river in Miramichi 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 Hospital was built by the British Admiralty.
The purpose of this marine hospital was to provided care for indigent, sick or disabled seamen, most of whom worked in the timber trade along the Miramichi River.
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 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 newspaper 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.
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. The beams supporting the roof are shaped like those on the hull of a ship. The roof looks like an inverted ship.
The largest room, now an auditorium, faces the river. This was originally the main ward and would 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.
Although the walls have been covered with wallboard as a solution to the crumbling plaster, no irrevocable changes have been made.
The Hospital was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1989 and is the oldest surviving marine hospital in Canada.
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