The Muskoka Sanatoriums

Continuing on the topic of Consumption (TB), which crops up all too often in many family trees, including my own, as a cause of death, today we will explore the first TB hospital on Ontario: The Muskoka Cottage Sanatorium, and its sister facility funded by William J. Gage: The Muskoka Free Hospital for Consumptives, both in Gravenhurst.

Sanatoriums originated in Germany in 1854 and were medical facilities established on the belief that fresh air, rest and healthy diet were required to cure the disease. In 1897 the first tuberculosis sanatorium in Canada was established: the Muskoka Cottage Sanatorium. The site included a gazebo (also known as the Joss House) where patients could picnic and relax near the water and take in the fresh country air. The gazebo still stands and is a listed heritage structure, after being restored in 1988.

William J. Gage, who later established the Toronto Free Hospital for Consumptives in 1904, was passionate about establishing a TB hospital in Ontario. In 1894 he offered the City of Toronto $25,000 to build one but nothing was done, likely because of phthisiophobia (fear of TB) and NIMBYism. There was a growing movement though to fight the White Plague and in 1896 The National Sanitarium Association (NSA) was established. It collected funds for research and set a goal of building sanatoria.

When the town of Gravenhurst stepped forward with $10,000 and it was combined it with Gage’s $25,000 offer, which Toronto still hadn’t accepted, the NSA built Canada’s first sanitarium in Muskoka. Known as the “Muskoka San” it was the first in Canada, the second in North America and only the fourth in the world. In a time before Ontario provided free health care, institutions like sanatoriums were only for those who could afford their amenities and were much like country resorts. The Muskoka San was no different and charged fees for service. There were 35 beds, with patients staying an average of 98 days and charged a weekly fee of $6. Other cottages were added over time to the facility, when donations from prominent citizens such as William Christie (the biscuit maker) donated $5000 and the Christie cottage was built. Demand was great and many tent-shacks were also built on the site, with patients living in these unheated facilities all winter as it was felt this would strengthen their bodies against the disease.

The NSA and William Gage felt strongly that poor people deserved TB treatment as well. In 1902 the Muskoka Free Hospital for Consumptives (MFHC) opened on the same grounds as the Muskoka San, and it was the first free TB hospital in the world. Two years later Gage was then successful in establishing the Toronto Free Hospital for Consumptives (see yesterday’s post). The Muskoka hospital was used mostly by those with latent TB or in the early stages of TB, whereas the Toronto facility was for those with the most serious cases. The MFHC was set up with wards as well as outdoor pavilions, and was generally seen to be more efficient than the cottage hospital design.

When the MFHC burnt down in 1920, it was replaced with a new building in named after Sir William Gage (knighted for his service to fighting TB) who died in 1921. The Gage has been described as “a bold, modern structure, resembling an office building or school in its site planning, massing, plan, and construction, and despite its isolated waterfront location in bucolic Muskoka, the Gage resembled hundreds of general urban hospitals constructed in North American cities in the interwar period”.

With a decline in TB patients after the discovery of the antibiotic streptomycin in the 1940s, the site of the Muskoka Free Hospital for Consumptives was sold to the province of Ontario in 1957 to be used as a training school for firefighters. The site of the Cottage Hospital was sold to the province of Ontario in 1960 and became a housing and care facility for development challenged individuals known as the Muskoka Centre. If this sounds familiar, you may have heard about it in the news as there was a $36 million class-action law-suit filed due to the poor conditions at Muskoka Centre and other facilities. In short: there were too many patients, not enough staff and some patients suffered abuse. The Muskoka Regonial Centre was closed in 1994 and today the Centre sits vacant and is a popular place for urban explorers while the OPP use the grounds for dog training.

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