Remembering Old Tuolumne General

By Bob Holton March 15, 2010 18:12

1930s photo courtesy Tuolumne County Museum

The story of Tuolumne General Hospital, which eventually collapsed under the weight of insurmountable debt and what some say was slow-moving government bureaucracy, is sad in many ways. This historic county hospital provided excellent health care to our community for more than a century and a half until it was pronounced terminally ill by county supervisors in 2007.

To understand how this pioneer institution came into existence, first consider the conditions that prevailed in Sonora during 1848 and 1849. Owing to the want of fresh vegetables, multitudes of gold washers were stricken with scurvy, a disease brought on by vitamin C deficiency. This predicament reached epidemic proportions, as hundreds of miners died during the spring and summer of ’49.

Gravely concerned, the kind and benevolent people of this encampment concluded that a hospital must be built. On Nov. 7, 1849, they organized a town government and sold lots to raise money for the noble project. It was mainly due to this urgent need for good health care that Sonora officially became a town, according to an old document cited by The Union Democrat in 1877.

The original hospital was a canvas tent near today’s Courthouse Square. Its attending physician was paid $8 a day. Bottled water was sold to patients for $5, potatoes for $1 to $1.50 per pound. The high prices were not unusual in 1849 due to scarcity of food and supplies in the diggings.

In 1851, the county took over the hospital, which eventually grew into a magnificent three-story Victorian structure fronted by spacious balconies. By 1896 it was devoted primarily to indigent care and was widely known as the “county home.”

It was moved six times during its long run, expanded, demolished, rebuilt, expanded again, praised as an exemplary medical center and, more recently, denounced as a financial debacle.

Unable to compete for market share with its privately run rival, Sonora Community Hospital, by the mid-1980s Tuolumne General had fallen into accounting disarray. By 1989 client files were a mess, according to its own chief executive. Turnaround time between invoicing and reimbursements was a disaster – far worse than industry standards – and cash-flow shortfalls were unsustainable.

By 2004, when Sonora Community moved to its present state-of-the-art facility on Greenley Road and was renamed Sonora Regional Medical Center, it was all but over for old Tuolumne General. Seven-figure deficits were staggering. She was now hemorrhaging red ink at an unstoppable rate, her vital signs were beyond critical and she was expected to flatline unless she received immediate help.

Meanwhile, the county poured more and more taxpayers’ dollars into what seemed like a black hole. Finally, at 6:05 pm on April 10, 2007, years of debate ended as the Board of Supervisors pulled the plug in a 4-1 vote. Tuolumne General would be permanently shut down in stages beginning with acute-care services.

Longtime board member Dick Pland called the closure one of the most difficult decisions the board had ever faced.

That evening, hospital staff members, in a tearful candlelight vigil, said their goodbyes to one of the state’s last remaining rural county hospitals. The grand old lady had served the community well for 158 years.

All that remains of this historic sanitarium today is a tiny accounting office, records room, and 42-bed long-term care unit that will soon move to new quarters, run by a private corporation.

Today, Pland offers this postscript: “The way things are now, it’s a good thing ted when we did or the whole county might be bankrupt by now.”

By Bob Holton March 15, 2010 18:12
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1 Comment

  1. sue September 4, 11:55

    Does anyone know how to find records of a patient who was there in 1948?

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