Monday Medical: A century of care

Christine McKelvie/For the Steamboat Today
Christine McKelvie

The year 1914 was a year of firsts in Steamboat Springs and Routt County. In February, the town hosted the inaugural Mid-Winter Sports Carnival, featuring ski jumping, ski races and nightly dances.

Seven months later, thousands thronged at the tents and grounds of the initial Routt County Fair in Hayden. Drawn by the promise of seeing their first flying machine, the crowd was elated by the airplane’s two ascensions.

Another heralded event was the April 1914 opening of Steamboat’s modern, up-to-date hospital. Officially named the Steamboat Springs Sanitarium, it was located in the former Payne building on Sixth Street. Six attending physicians — including Dr. Frederick E. Willett — and nine consulting physicians were on the medical staff.

Space was tight, and the hospital was relocated in late 1914 to what is commonly but erroneously thought of as “the first hospital” — the two-story building on the corner of Sixth Street and Lincoln Avenue that now houses the Old Town Pub. Dr. Willett saved the failing hospital in 1915 and moved it to Seventh and Aspen streets in 1921.

For 35 years, he charitably operated the town’s hospital at great expense to himself while carrying on a very busy medical practice. Dr. Willett often was called to treat patients at isolated ranches far from town, and he frequently used his own car as an ambulance.

In 1946, with Dr. Willett approaching retirement, a new nonprofit organization was formed to create a community hospital. The Steamboat Springs Hospital Association spent four years planning, fundraising and building before opening Routt County Memorial Hospital in 1950.

The Park Avenue structure underwent many alterations and a minor name change in the next 49 years. After weathering an economic slump in the 1950s, the hospital was expanded in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. Finally, Yampa Valley Medical Center replaced the aging Routt Memorial Hospital in November 1999.

In 1940, Dr. Willett managed to operate his hospital with just three nurses, a housekeeper and cook. Today, YVMC employs 488 individuals and has 64 physicians on its active medical staff. An additional 19 doctors are on the consulting/associate medical staff.

Throughout the past century, our hospitals have brought thousands of newborns into the world and supplied care and comfort to countless numbers of patients.

As for technology, in 1937 Dr. Willett gratefully purchased a $190 oxygen tent with proceeds from numerous fundraisers. In the past several years, generous donations have allowed YVMC to obtain a da Vinci surgical robot, the latest mammography and imaging technology and a simulation training lab.

That’s the incredibly condensed overview of 100 years of hospitals in Steamboat Springs. We could fill volumes with the full history, but we plan to be a bit more selective than that and write just one book.

Yours truly has been busy researching, writing and finding photos to illustrate a century of care. I’ve been time-traveling without a time machine, delving into old issues of the Steamboat Pilot and other Routt County newspapers and scrolling through the thousands of digital photos maintained by the Tread of Pioneers Museum.

One consistent theme throughout the decades is that the hospital is a much-needed institution in our community. It rarely was taken for granted. Supportive fundraising events were frequent in the 1920s and ’30s, and the enormous push to build the new hospital in the 1940s touched nearly every household in Routt County.

YVMC’s Healthcare Foundation for the Yampa Valley is busy planning a fundraising event to celebrate the 100-year milestone. The Aug. 14 “Diamonds and Denim” gala will pay tribute to the spirit of Doc Willett and those who have championed YVMC’s mission to provide outstanding health care. For this year, the event replaces the popular Doc Willett awards. Details can be found at

And about that book: If you have a memory of Dr. Willett or a photo of the short-lived Hooper Hospital, the long-serving Dr. M. L. Crawford or a baby born at the Steamboat Hospital during the 1940s, get in touch with me at 970-875-2756 or

Christine McKelvie is a writer/editor for Yampa Valley Medical Center.

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