Cory’s Historical Corner

By Cory Peterman

County Hospital in Downieville – 1909

The following image actually comes from my family’s personal historic photograph collection and depicts “inmates” of the county hospital in Downieville sitting on a bench outside of the building, which was located on Zumwalt flat across the street from the present-day tennis court. The year 1909 is written on the back of the photograph.

A similar photo, depicting some of the same men, hangs in the Downieville museum with the caption “Sierra Co. Mining Pioneers – All had struck it rich at least once during life.” Unfortunately, none of the men in the photo are identified, though I was once told by a Downieville local that the man with the wooden leg (fourth from left was known as “Clamper Jack.” The Morning Union of March 20, 1907 reported “Giacoma Debernardi, an inmate of the county hospital for some time past, had an operation performed upon him last Monday by Dr. R. B. Davy. He had been suffering for several months with a sore foot and gangrene finally set in and the doctor concluded that amputation of the big toe of his right foot was necessary… he is better known as ‘Clamper Jack.’” Records show that Debernardi passed away a few months later on June 12, 1907. So considering my photograph was said to be taken in 1909, after his death, and the fact that the man in the photo is missing his left leg, it could be possible that the man is not “Clamper Jack.” Of note, my great-great-great-grandfather Joseph Pearson of Forest City was an inmate of the county hospital for a short time in 1909 before passing away there, but I do not know if he is one of the men in the photograph.

The original county hospital in Downieville was located in the Fetter house (later occupied by the Huelsdonk and Villareal families, which in the 1850s was the home of Benjamin M. Fetter, one-time county treasure and Wells Fargo agent. According to Fariss and Smith’s History of Sierra County published in 1882, “In November, 1858, the supervisors ordered the fitting up of the old Fetter building on Jersey flat, in Downieville, for a hospital, and in December, Dr. E. J. Bryant was appointed to its charge.” However, a new hospital was later built, which is the building depicted in the attached photo. Fariss and Smith wrote “The new hospital, situated picturesquely on the north fork of the North Yuba, was built in the fall of 1880, and occupied in the middle of December. The main building is 24×46 feet in size, with two stories. The dining-room forms an addition 24 feet in length by 14 feet in breadth, and the kitchen another addition. The building is very neatly finished both inside and out, and is surrounded by well-kept grounds subject to constant improvements.

This hospital served Sierra County residents for many decades, until it was forced to close in 1958. The Sierra Booster of July 4, 1958 reported “The Sierra County hospital here will finally be closed as of Sept. 30. Cost of maintaining the three patients is too great and they will be placed elsewhere.” The Reno Evening Gazette wrote “Supervisors acted upon the advice of the state health department and construction officials. The cost of remodeling the facility would have been too prohibitive for the amount of patients to be served by it.

The Board of Supervisors held a bid on March 1, 1960 “for the sale of the Sierra County Hospital Buildings, excluding the stone cellar building.” The notice stated “The successful bidder shall remove said buildings within ninety (90 days from the acceptance of his bid by the Board Supervisors and shall be bonded in the amount of $1,000.00 to insure proper cleanup of the property on which said buildings are located after the removal of said buildings therefrom.” The building was torn down, and new residential buildings were built on the site soon after.

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