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Caring Scotswoman starts sanitarium

Nevada City Sanitarium on Coyote Street, as it was in 1961. The building, in which 3,000 babies were born, was razed in 1964 to make way for the Golden Center Freeway.
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The W.C. Jones Memorial Hospital in Grass Valley (The Union, April 27) opened in 1907, and was the first privately owned hospital in Nevada County. Then in March 1910, Elizabeth McDonald (McD) Watson and Laura M. Peterson opened the Nevada City Sanitarium on Coyote Street “on the banks of Manzanita Creek.” The facility operated until 1946, when it was converted to a rest home and served as such until it closed its doors in 1953.

On April 2, 1951, the Nevada County Historical Society paid tribute to two of Nevada City’s most beloved citizens, Elizabeth McDonald Watson and George Calanan, naming them Citizens of the Year at a sold-out dinner in the now-demolished Nevada City Elks Club on North Pine Street.



Calanan was a Nevada City civic leader and longtime city employee; Watson was a nurse who owned and operated the Nevada City Sanitarium. An additional honor was the proclamation by the City Council of “Calanan-Watson Day” in Nevada City. Congratulations were also received from Gov. Earl Warren and Secretary of State Frank H. Jordan, who issued each honoree a “courtesy pass,” allowing them access to all state offices.

Master of ceremonies for the evening was Nevada City raconteur and gadabout Bob Paine. Paine, who had known each honoree since his childhood, lead the evening of nostalgia, music and speeches of appreciation. Watson, who was 85, had devoted her entire working life to helping others.




Elizabeth McDonald Watson was born near Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1867. She had a limited grammar school education, and her brief attendance at nursing school was halted at age 18, when family illness required her to return home.

At age 32 in 1896, she immigrated to the United States, landing in Detroit to be near a brother who was terminally ill. She went to the Lemhi Indian Agency in Idaho after her brother’s death and taught cooking and home care to the children.

It was here that she heard of Nevada City and decided to go to the Gold Country, arriving in 1900. Her skills were immediately in demand. Watson had continued her nursing studies and “read medicine” with a local physician while at Lemhi and continued her studies by correspondence course in Nevada City. She received her nursing diploma from the Chautauqua School in New York in 1905.

In 1910, she was joined by Laura M. Peterson to establish the town’s first general hospital – the Nevada City Sanitarium – in a small cottage on Coyote Street. The lot “containing a half-acre of ground (is) laid out with flowers, lawns and trees; it is a restful, picturesque spot …” As the demand grew, so did the hospital. By 1920, the facility contained eight rooms for patients and a new wing was added with a well-equipped operating room.

The women operated the hospital until 1946, when it was converted to a rest home. The rest home closed in 1953, but Peterson remained with Watson, taking care of her until her death at 90 on Jan. 3, 1957.

Watson was proud of the sanitarium’s record of never losing a mother in childbirth – the only exception was a woman who died from a pre-existing condition. The hospital recorded 3,000 births, and Dr. Harry March, who in 1951 used the sanitarium as his medical office, listed more than 1,500 maternity cases in 18 years of practice.

In addition to an exemplary maternity record, the hospital had a reputation for excellence in caring for all types of illness and accidents. In 1918, during the Spanish flu epidemic following World War I, the sanitarium did not lose a single patient. The hospital was taxed to the limit with beds in the hallways, but did not turn away anyone.

Watson’s obituary said in part, “(She) was beloved to all for great humanitarian work and unselfish interest in the community … and its people … Her affection for Nevada City and Nevada County … gave her a deep feeling for the needs of the people here and she kept her hospital for local patients almost exclusively.”

Bob Wyckoff is a retired newspaper editor, an author of local history, a lifetime student of California history and a longtime resident of Nevada County. He writes history stories twice a month. You can write him at The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945.


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