by Don Ferguson
The opening of new hospital facilities here made news recently, but 48 years ago, it was the closing of a hospital that was in the news.
Knoxville General Hospital , owned and operated by the city of Knoxville for 54 years, closed on Aug. 9, 1956. It was on Cleveland Place, one block west of Central Street in North Knoxville, the site today of the Knox County Health Department facilities. A large overpass spanning Cleveland Place connected two wings of the hospital.
General Hospital’s closing coincided with the opening of University of Tennessee Medical Center on Alcoa Highway, a joint project of the state, the city and Knox County.
Patients at General were transferred to the new hospital on opening day. A dozen ambulances from Roberts Funeral Home, owned by the late City Councilman Milton Roberts, started the transfer at 8 a.m. and finished by noon.
Nurses rode in the ambulances with the patients, and an intern also went along with the seriously ill patients. “A few patients were transferred without interrupting intravenous feedings,” the news article said.
Many nearby residents watching the move said they would miss the hospital. “It was handy for me here when I got sick, with the hospital across the street,” said an 81-year-old woman. “Don’t know how I’m going to get to the new hospital way out on Alcoa Highway.”
General Hospital’s emergency room, which had received its share of curious cases through the years, continued to do so right up to the end. On the hospital’s last night of operation, a pregnant woman in premature labor signed in after walking more than two miles from her home on Vine Avenue, carrying an 18-inch billy stick for protection in the dark.
“The very last person to receive treatment there was a 50-year-old man who came in at 5 a.m. His illness? A headache,” the News Sentinel story said.
Although the hospital had served the community well for many years, it was described by a visiting British surgeon a few months before it closed as the “sorriest hospital I’ve ever seen.” He said the medical work and the staff were good, “but the building itself is terrible.”
Nonetheless, the closing of the 285-bed hospital didn’t come easy. Many were against the closing. Petitions calling for a referendum on the question were circulated, but a vote never materialized.
Just as there was a squabble over the closing of the hospital, there was controversy over its opening a half century earlier. It opened in 1902 amid charges that it was too big and was a waste of money. But that attitude changed following one of the worst train wrecks in the nation’s history at New Market, 23 miles east of Knoxville, on Sept. 24, 1904. More than 70 people were killed and many more injured, most of whom were hospitalized at General.
Two of the newer buildings that were part of General Hospital remain. The nurses’ home at 114 Dameron Ave., around the corner to the east of the former hospital, today houses one of the residences of Child and Family Tennessee. Around the corner to the west, at 970 Wray St., is the former Rosenwald Wing, where blacks were treated. It today is Serene Manor Medical Center.
The main portion of the hospital was torn down in 1956, and a building to house the merged city and county health offices was erected on the site. Not only is the hospital gone so is Cleveland Place, the block-long street that would have hardly been known except for its being the location of what was, for many years, the community’s largest hospital. Expansion of health department facilities resulted in the last portion of the street being closed in 1995.
Knoxville News-Sentinel – Sunday, November 21, 2004 – Edition: Five-star – Section: Perspective – Page: G5