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What was the history of the Wilmington City Hospital?

Ben Steelman
City Hospital

Jim Hall and Dr. C. P. Bolles at City Hospital in the 1890s. (Photo courtesy New Hanover County Public Library, Fales Collection)

News clippings about City Hospital date from 1868, when Wilmington officials petitioned the federal government for use of the old U.S. Marine Hospital building, on a large campus at Eighth and Ann streets. This antebellum structure had been used as a Confederate hospital during the Civil War. Its cupola was supposed to offer the best view of Wilmington anywhere in the city.

In 1869, some 15 “inmates” (as patients were occasionally called) were moved into the Marine Hospital building. According to an item in the Morning Star, patients from outside the city were “admitted only by special arrangement.” News stories indicate the facility employed both black and white nurses.

Another series of Morning Star stories followed the case of an African-American patient, an amputee suffering severe loss of blood who, in late May 1870, received a “transfusion” of blood from a lamb. The Star was much taken with this novel procedure and printed glowing bulletins on the patient’s steady improvement until his death on June 10, 1870.

In 1881, the N.C. General Assembly passed an act allowing the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County to set up a joint hospital. (The facility was occasionally called the “City-County Hospital,” but most newspaper stories, and the city directory, continued to refer to it as “City Hospital.”)

The newly organized hospital acquired a building and lot at 10th and Red Cross streets, on the former site of Klein’s, a beer garden. Dr. W.W. Lane was named its first superintendent, a post he held for 16 years. Lane, according to historian Diane Cashman, pioneered the use of James Lister’s sterilization techniques in the area.

According to Dr. Robert Fales, City Hospital averaged a cost of 30 cents per patient per day. Many of these were charity cases; in 1891, the hospital’s annual receipts totaled just $719. (In 1894, the hospital trustees reported treating 202 charity patients in the previous year, and 68 paying patients.)  The county covered three-fifths of operating expenses, and the city, two-fifths.

The building was expanded in 1884 by James F. Post, the architect-builder who had worked on Thalian Hall. By July 1884, a local newspaper described it as “a very handsome cottage hospital.” Another news item reported that “(t)he grounds are very beautifully laid out and adorned with trees, plants, shrubbery, grape arbors, etc.”

In 1886, the hospital hit a total of 39 patients. (Its usual census in those years ran between 25 and 30.) At least some of these may have been in some form of respite or nursing care. That same year, cotton broker James Sprunt paid for about a dozen City Hospital patients to take a day-long excursion down the Cape Fear River on the steamer Passport to Smithville (Southport), where they were served “a good dinner” at Miss Stewart’s.

Four private rooms were maintained upstairs at the City Hospital, according to the Wilmington Messenger, for patients “who are able to pay moderate outlays for treatment but can ill afford to pay the travel expenses incident to treatment in a Northern hospital.” 

Until 1888, City Hospital seems to have been limited to white patients. In that year, however, “a large, commodious building” was added on the grounds “for the accommodation of the colored people.” 

Other buildings also were located on the grounds. In 1898, a small structure, used as a dispensary, burned down and was replaced.

In 1897, Dr. R.E.  Zachary of Brevard, a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina and a newly licensed M.D., was hired as resident surgeon to replace Dr. Lane, who was retiring. Zachary departed within a year, amid allegations of incompetence and scandal, and Dr. C.P. Wertenbaker of the Marine Hospital filled in until the hiring of Dr. Charles P. Bolles Jr. as the new superintendent in 1899.

During the 1898 Wilmington riot/uprising, a number of wounded black men were treated at City Hospital.

By then, standards seem to have suffered a decline. Dr. Bolles soon complained to county officials that the hospital’s surgical instruments were old and rusty and that the hospital urgently needed a new sterilizer. In 1900, Dr. Bolles departed to accept a position with Hugh MacRae & Co., and Dr. Lane (who had been in private practice in Wilmington) returned as superintendent.

In 1901, City Hospital was replaced by the new James Walker Memorial Hospital, built under a bequest from James Walker (who had constructed the old Marine Hospital building). While James Walker was being built on its old Red Cross Street site, City Hospital seems to have operated temporarily at Dickinson and Rankin streets.

User-contributed question by:
Ricka McKeithan

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One Response to “ What was the history of the Wilmington City Hospital?”

  1. On September 7, 2010 at 4:43 pm Susan Taylor Block wrote:

    Wonderful article! So good to see Diane Cashman’s name, too.

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