1911 – Alberta

The Provincial Asylum, 1911

sketch of grand old institutional building with verandas

Ponoka, Alberta

Current Name
The Alberta Hospital, Ponoka

The Site

black and white aerial of large institution with old buildings surrounded by prairie fields
Aerial view of the Provincial Asylum at Ponoka, 1965

Following legislation of Alberta’s “Insanity Act” of 1907, the town of Ponoka was selected as the location for the first asylum in the new province. The site was on the old Hudson’s Bay Company Trail, 90 kilometres south of Edmonton on the way to Calgary. Edmonton had been a major post in the fur trade since 1795. Fort Calgary became a city in 1886, after the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Rail access from Ponoka to Edmonton, and to Calgary and the CPR mainline, became possible following completion of the Calgary and Edmonton Railway in 1891.

The town of Ponokais located in a region of gently rolling land devoted to mixed farming operations. It has varied natural growth typical of central prairie regions. The hospital was located on rising ground, with western and southern exposure and marshy soil. It is now landscaped with mature trees, lawns, and gardens, all planted on the bald prairie. Farm acreage originally provided space and opportunity for hospital food supply and therapeutic work for patients.

The Alberta Hospital at Ponoka is still separated from the community by a moderate distance of open space. It seems likely, given slow growth of the community, that a closer physical connection will not be made for a long time to come.

Architectural and Service Details   

Architect A.M. Jeffers, Provincial Architect
Floor Area 1911 bldg, ~ 58,000 sq.ft including basement
Height 4 stories including basement
Description Monolithic, linear with a centre block and cross blocks at each end (Similar to an “E” plan)
Occupancy 175 estimated beds shown on the floor plan, Actual (max) occupancy n/a
Structural Pile foundation on marshy soil. Fire resistant structure, due to the distance from community firefighting equipment (58)
Heating  Separate boiler plant. Forced warm air to private rooms, steam to dormitory and day room radiation and to kitchen and laundry equipment.
Lighting Electric, stream-driven generators. The hospital supplied electric power to the town of Ponoka, with morning and evening service, from 1911 to 1929. 
Water Supply Deep wells provided barely adequate supply in drug season. Water tower of 80,000 gallons erected for fire reserve. 
Plumping Sewage was piped to a nearby stream.
Fire History Alarm system installed. 2 farm dormitories burned in 1967 with no loss of life. 

The Buildings

The third-floor plan shows an even distribution of beds in single and double rooms, and mid-size dormitory and day-room spaces. Corridors are double loaded. They were wide enough for service traffic, but without room for sitting or ambulatory exercise of patients. There were two central airing verandahs, each 12’x33′, and two more, 12’x12′, at the end of each wing. They provided a sense of open space and gave borrowed light to corridors. The verandahs were permanently enclosed at a later date, adding a few beds to each floor.

According to Hurd, the plan of the Ponoka asylum was a modified version of the floor plans of a hospital for acute care, in Utica, New York. The New York State Architect co-operated in providing information. Both Hurd and LaJeunnesse refer to the plan as “cross shaped”. That is an approximate description. It should not be confused with medieval plans where religious hospital buildings were planned in the precise form of a cross. The reference to the Utica plan seems to refer to a first phase of that building, with little similarity of completed structures.

Architecturally the early Ponoka buildings were utilitarian. They were well built with steel frame and concrete floors. Little attention was given to style and ornamentation. Numerous additions and some new buildings have generally ignored architectural consistency, and were designed to suit stylistic concepts at the date of their construction.The original asylum of 1911 has been designated and protected as “The Heritage Building”. It is well preserved, and floor plans have been re-drawn for heritage display purposes.

Floor plan of the Provincial Asylum, Ponoka, Alberta

In 1911 the Ponoka hospital building was ready, and the new province of Alberta repatriated its mentally ill residents from the asylums of Manitoba. 164 chronic and incurable patients from the Alberta region were at Brandon, living under emergency shelter at the Winter Fair Buildings. They were awaiting construction of a new asylum to replace the buildings burned in 1910. To the relief of the temporary and crowded building at the Fair Grounds, the Alberta patients were taken aboard a special CPR train, and moved 850 miles in 30 hours, to the new asylum in Ponoka. The train was made up of 4 coaches and a tourist car and was tagged “The Insane Special.”  Windows were fitted with bars, and the journey was supervised by 35 attendants and nurses. 

Grounds, Farms and Gardens

“Plowing, seeding, cultivation and digging were all done by horse-drawn machines. Potato picking and sacking had to be done by hand. Farm workers were recruited from all wards and over a hundred men would get the work done earning a package of tobacco and afternoon lunch.”  ~ taken from A History of Dedication and Caring, 1986

The Ponoka site slopes gently to the west, with views to farmland . The lawn in front of the original 1913 building was terraced with low banks of planted material. Borders, foundation planting, and informal layout of trees and shrubs were in good condition when I visited the site in 2000. There were few hedges on the grounds. An occasional small planted area was done in formal design. Trees in Ponoka are not high; they are mainly Alberta spruce and a few pine, plus poplar, aspen and other deciduous trees and shrubs native to the prairie region. During the first year of operation many staff lived in tents on the unsheltered grasslands.

Most grounds work – planting, cultivating, weeding, mowing, and trimming – was done by patients on the garden crew. They became the snow gang in winter, clearing walks and roads, and attending to ice hazards. For many years the patients working in the gardens were known as “Hourrigan’s Gang,” named after a big, genial Irishman who was credited with helping many patients in his crew. A greenhouse supervisor was in charge of the gardens, which supplied flowers to wards, dining rooms, offices, and staff residences. Hospital staff advise that at present (2009) flowers in beds at the entry to the Senior Mental Centre are provided by school children and the Ponoka Chamber of Commerce, and are tended by a few patients.

Patients under Dr. Dawson, the first superintendent, were engaged in ”building beautification”, farming and gardening. These latter enterprises expanded exponentially over the next three decades, done done by mixed crews that included patients and hired help. In 1921 the farm was entirely re-built one mile east of the hospital. Four railcars of Holstein cows were imported from Eastern Canada. The vegetable garden was enlarged to 48 acres, followed a piggery, poultry house, and slaughterhouse. A farm manager’s house, and a dormitory for working patients and farm hands were also built.  In 1923 a second root house was built and patients did the hard work of constantly turning the vegetables. Two new farm dormitories and two farm houses were constructed at the end of the 1920s.

Garden production grew to the point that supply of other mental hospitals in Alberta was supplemented by vegetables from Ponoka. In 1944 the Ponoka farm produced enough turkeys to supply its own needs and psychiatric facilities in Oliver, Claresholm, and Raymond. The hospital cannery reached peak production in the 1940s, processing 23,000 gallons of fruit and vegetables annually. Gardening on a large scale ended in 1962, but the cannery and reduced vegetable production continued until 1969. The greenhouse continued, and remains in operation. The farm closed in 1962; farmland was sold, and buildings were demolished.

Patients unable to work or attend walking parties used airing courts, enclosed with high board fences. 4 supervisors watched over 200 patients given their chance for fresh air each day. Walking parties and airing courts followed the pattern of other western hospitals.Courts received the usual critical comments from hospital inspectors. According to Hincks’ 1929 report on Ponoka hospital, “The majority, however, get fresh air either on the verandahs or in the airing courts. The two airing courts are unsatisfactory because of the large number of patients indiscriminately mingled in relatively small areas; because of their desolate appearance without grass, trees and shrubbery and hemmed in by the walls of buildings and high board fences, and because in such enclosures there is little for patients to do but walk in circles.”

 Dr. Dawson protested that outdoor sports were not yet authorized, except for football, ….”from which even the female patients got considerable amusement.”  Staff in the hospital formed a soccer team for provincial competitions. The hospital history makes no mention of patients playing organized team sports. The hospital did organize an annual sports day for patients. It paraded to the town of Ponoka, where men sat on one side of the playing field, women on the other.

Patient Life

“With a larger institution, there would be a tendency to harbour patients for long periods, and such a course is not recommended.” Clarence Hincks, 1921

Early intentions for the hospital at Ponoka contemplated a small institution of 250 patients. Treatment was to be based on the ideas of Moral Management. Dr. Thomas Dawson, Medical Health Officer for Calgary but with no psychiatric training, was selected as the first superintendent. Although Alberta was said to have a very low rate of hospitalization (1/1445 citizens), like Manitoba it faced the usual problems of growing population and overcrowded asylums. Additional buildings were rapidly constructed to keep up with demand for bed space. In 1912 construction started on a second building. It opened in the same year. Another building was constructed in 1915, and Dr. Dawson resigned. He believed that social life and development of patients would be hampered by the explosive growth of the hospital, and that the large buildings provided were useful for custodial confinement, not treatment.  More buildings were added in 1919, 1921, and 1922.

The statistics of hospital crowding are difficult to follow. It appears that demand for space was not steady; there were surges and times of low demand. Hurd noted that in 1913, with two buildings in operation and more on the way, Ponoka had a bed capacity of 400, but only 287 actual occupants at that moment. Nonetheless, crowding developed in Alberta as in other provinces, and debate continued as to the merits of large custodial buildings versus smaller, active treatment hospitals.

The architectural story of hospital capacity and crowding at Ponoka is told in detail by Drs Hurd and Hincks, and by R. A. LaJeunnesse. In the title of his 2002 book Political Asylums LaJeunnesse refers to mental hospitals in Alberta where political decisions often over-rode the recommendations of medical staff and advisors. In the case of Ponoka, a 1921 government decision to enlarge the Ponoka facility to 1500 patients was made against the prior advice of two cabinet ministers and Dr. Hincks. At about the same time, planners suggested that patients be moved from Red Deer’s Hospital for Returned Soldiers to a second hospital at Oliver, and to a new school for mentally retarded people in Edmonton. The result was relocation of many patients, inconvenience to relatives, and still no reduction in size of hospitals or expansion of active treatment facilities.

The 1921 CNCMH survey is very brief on the buildings and grounds at Ponoka. It praises the site and the landscaping, and commends the provision of equipment and space for hydrotherapy, laboratory, electrotherapy, and operating room.  The report of the 1928 survey also covered buildings and activities and noted the absence of essential facilities. Hincks and Farrar had a great deal to say about the difficulty of humane treatment in over-sized hospitals, and went on to advise that separation of the hospital from a community was part of the problem, ”the closer the relationship between hospital and community, the better for all concerned”. The same report pressed the issue of overloaded buildings, saying that crowding was especially destructive in mental hospitals, leading inevitably to hardship for staff and patients by inviting confusion, abuse and injuries.

The hospital organized 2 major events each year for the patients. An Annual Sports Day, complete with a parade to Ponoka, included ward competitions in tug of war, sack races, broad jump, and high jump. Soccer was played, women sat on one side of the field, men on the other. There was music, hot dogs, ice cream, and lemonade. A Christmas celebration offered indoor entertainment, using staff and children as entertainers. The hospital history does not mention patients performing at the celebration.


T.J.W. Burgess. Presidential Address to the Royal Society of Canada, Transactions, Section IV, Geological and Biological Sciences, 1898.

C.M. Hincks. “Survey of the Province of Manitoba,” Canadian Journal of Mental Hygiene, vol.1, 1919-1920.

C.M. Hincks and C.B. Farrar, “Report of Commissioners Appointed to Investigate the Provincial Training School at Red Deer, Provincial Mental Institute at Oliver, and Provincial Mental Hospital at Ponoka,” Legislative Assembly of Alberta, 1929.

Henry M. Hurd. The Institutional Care of the Insane in the United States and Canada. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1917.

Ronald LaJeunesse. Political Asylums. Edmonton, Alberta: The Muttart Foundation, 2002.

No author. A History of Dedication and Caring. Ponoka, Alberta: The Alberta Hospital, 1986.

Kurt Refvik. History of the Brandon Mental Health Centre. Brandon: Brandon Mental Health Centre, 1991.