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Cloudcroft Baby Sanatorium Saved Many
By Krystal Jaroszewski, Erika Alvarez and Melanie E. Aguilar
Summers in El Paso can still be brutal despite the fact that most residents have some type of air conditioning. Imagine day upon day of 100+ degree temperatures without air conditioning, ceiling fans or swimming pools. Such situations are difficult for adults, but for babies they can be fatal. And they were in the Sun City back in the early 1900s. El Paso’s harsh summer heat seriously affected some infants. They easily became dehydrated, and lack of refrigeration didn’t make it any easier. A physician of the time, Dr. E. W. Rhenheimer, explained, “There was whole milk available, but there was no way of preserving it.” The heat and spoiled milk caused diarrhea and gastrointestinal diseases in babies, sometimes resulting in death.
Image caption: Nurses are for infants who were taken outside to enjoy the sunshine on warm days at the Baby San. Photo from El Paso Historical Society
Sick babies often were rushed to much cooler California to escape the extreme heat of El Paso. Historian C.L. Sonnichsen wrote that many babies died from their illness on the two-day ride in hot dusty trains to California. Among those parents losing a child to heat-related diseases was Dr. Herbert Stevenson. In 1904, his first son died while being taken to California. When his second son fell sick, he took him to Cloudcroft, N.M., a trip that saved his life.
Stevenson used to spend time in Cloudcroft with his father-in-law before the railroad came through that area. They would ride mules or horses in Cloudcroft where they enjoyed its cool weather and beauty. Helen O’Shea Keleher, an admirer of the village, wrote that “tiny wild roses and wild strawberries covered the ground. Cloudcroft was the most beautiful place I have ever seen.”
According to Pat Rand, curator of the Sacramento Mountain Historical Museum in Cloudcroft, the Eddy brothers, founders of the Southwestern Railroad, sent scouts out to find wood for railroad ties and fuel for trains. Finding what they needed in Cloudcroft, the company built a track from El Paso up the mountains to Cloudcroft.
El Pasoans already had a connection to the mountain village. During the hot summers, many affluent women and children lived in Cloudcroft to escape the heat. The men of the family visited on weekends. Because Cloudcroft’s temperatures had helped save Dr. Stevenson’s son, his dream was that this small, beautiful town 9,000 feet in elevation could save the lives of other sick babies.
Many El Pasoans pitched in to help this dream of a baby sanatorium become reality. Joshua Raynold, a patient of Dr. Stevenson and the president of the First National Bank, donated $10,000 to the project. Another patient donated $5,000. Architect E. Krause provided his skills for the construction of the building.
Estelle Goodman Levy wrote that the Woman’s Club sponsored several benefit parties to help raise money for the project, including weekly tea and bridge parties and an annual masquerade dance. The Little Theater Group of El Paso also performed benefit extravaganzas in the Cloudcroft Pavilion. On June 10, 1910, Southwestern Railroad Company generously provided the land in Cloudcroft, and construction of the new sanatorium began.
On June 14, 1911, the Cloudcroft Baby Sanatorium opened to receive babies suffering from heat-related diseases. The building itself included a large dormitory with 30 tiny beds, a small room for children with contagious diseases, a living room with a small fireplace, a doctor’s office, several bathrooms, a large kitchen, a covered porch for the children to enjoy on warm days and a furnace in the basement with radiators to keep the building warm. With the completion of this sanatorium, the history of El Paso’s infant care changed dramatically.
Community leader and El Paso pioneer Olga Kohlberg, who was actively involved in the sanatorium, recruited her son-in-law, Dr. Branch Craige, to come from Baltimore to provide medical care for these tiny charges. Pediatric workers from all over the country came such as a Miss Knox, a graduate pediatrics nurse from New York. When Dr. Craige and Miss Knox left the sanatorium after two seasons, Miss Louise Dietrich and Miss Emily Greene took over for the next eight years. The children’s haven was inspected by the Texas Nurses Convention, assuring cleanliness and up-to-date medical treatment.
Several El Paso physicians donated their time to the sanatorium. They included Drs. B. F. Stevens, J. A. Rawlings, A. P. Black and Harry Leigh. Barbara Rees, who is Dr. Leigh’s daughter and the curator for the El Paso County Historical Society, remembers traveling to Cloudcroft and playing at a park while her father went to check on the sick babies. She also recalled a time when her own brother fell ill during the hot summer. Keeping a close eye on him, their father put him in their basement near a fan and a block of ice until he recovered.
The El Paso Woman's Club continued to play a large role in supporting the Baby Sanatorium. In a 1999 El Paso Times article, Carolyn Breck, a past president of the club, said El Pasoans who helped on the project read like a "who's who" in civic affairs at the beginning of the century. In 1916, the Baby Sanatorium’s first board included Olga Kohlberg, Mrs. Winchester Cooley and Mrs. W. S. Tilton.
Transportation was never a problem when it came to getting the sick babies to Cloudcroft. Pat Rand explained that not only could travelers go up the mountain by train or bus, but once better roads were built, more people started using automobiles. Wanting any reason to escape the heat and get away for a refreshing, fun weekend, many members of the El Paso community offered their time and automobiles to transport the sick infants. Doctors who were going to Cloudcroft often brought sick babies up with them. Some babies were even sent up in the care of the train crew and then were met by women working for the “Baby San,” as it was known.
No baby was ever turned away from being helped because of a lack of money. Those who could afford the cost of treatment paid for it, helping those who could not afford to pay for their child’s stay at the sanatorium. Generous donations and fundraisers throughout the year by supporters provided a surplus of income, enabling an endowment to be created.
During the summer months, the Cloudcroft Baby Sanatorium was a haven for sick infants. Temperatures were 20-30 degrees cooler in the mountains, and after several days of being in the piney breezes, most of the children began to feel better. Although the sanatorium saved many lives, some children were just too sick to save.
In an oral history interview project at UTEP, Ruth Norton tells the story of an infant who died at the Baby San. After calling the baby’s parents, she said, “I never in all of my life heard such tragic, sad voices that answered me, and they said, ‘You know we do not have any money at all to come and get the child. Would you please just see to it that this little baby is buried?' So the man who was in charge of the mortuary said he would take care of the little baby, and he did." Most infants, however, regained their health and returned home to their families.
As time passed and technology improved, infants were less vulnerable to El Paso’s climate. With the advent of air conditioning, the sanatorium was no longer needed. Levy tell us that in 1935, the Cloudcroft Baby Sanatorium closed its doors and became a summer recreation camp for children. After Pearl Harbor , the building was used for civilian defense, and in 1945, Girl Scouts began using the building.
The town of Cloudcroft, named for the field of clouds that could be seen in early morning, had truly lived up to its name. One nurse who worked at the sanatorium was quoted as saying, “An all wise Providence created Cloudcroft for humanity, God-sent to sick babies.” The sanatorium had been Mother Nature’s cradle for twenty-four glorious years, helping over 500 sick babies.
Pat Rand reported they were able to contact about 40 individuals who had been at the Baby San as infants. One patient named Margie Springer came all the way from Massachusetts. The oldest patient to attend was at the sanatorium in 1919. While at the reunion, he saw a picture of babies sitting on the sanatorium’s porch and was able to identify one of the babies as himself.
Another baby sanatorium was located on the east side of Mt. Franklin close to Cottonwood Springs, equipped to handle as many as 50 babies. These sanatoriums were milestones for infant care in El Paso’s history and a testament to what can be accomplished when others come together for a worthy cause.
Tags: women, medicine