From Buckboard to Sikorsky

A newspaper article from September 1862, a month before the official opening of Royal Columbian Hospital (RCH), tells of a man who fell 30 feet down a precipice on the trail above Lytton, breaking one of his legs. “He succeeded in crawling to a point from which he could be seen by the men employed on the road, who at once conveyed him to Lytton, whence, through the kindness of the people at the various points, he reached this city.”

Later that month, another a man was brought down the Fraser River by the steamer Col. Moody and taken to RCH. However, the paper described him as so “far gone in a low fever” that he was unable to speak”. No one had any idea who he was or what was wrong with him. The paper suggested that it would be a good idea in the future “in sending down sick to accompany them with a letter from the local magistrate, or Doctor if any, giving the Hospital Board the name, disease, duration of illness and pecuniary circumstances of the patients.”

A 1876 case note for a seaman with a fractured rib reads, “This patient was struck on left side by a heavy spar on board ship on March 7th. Has been lying onboard since then on hard board. Brought in on stage today (March 10th).”

The only option for people to get to a hospital or to a doctor was to walk or be carried in a wagon or boat of some sort. The entire process might take days or even weeks, by which time infection might well have set in, a broken bone might have begun to set in a bad position, and of course, the patient had likely been in unremitting pain all that time.

Vehicles dedicated to transporting patients began in the early 1900s, but before the creation of the BC Ambulance Service (BCAS) on July 4, 1974, ambulance services were generally uncoordinated. Service was provided by a mixture of volunteer ambulance brigades, fire and police departments, funeral homes, and private operators.

In New Westminster, the first ambulance were horse-drawn wagons. In May 1909 City Council minutes note that the ambulance ordered by the City had arrived, would be kept at one of the Livery Stables, and that the parties using it were to pay for the use of the team. By 1912, there was a recommendation “that a Motor Ambulance be procured to be used for ordinary sickness and accidents, and that the present ambulance be used only for infectious diseases.” The photograph below shows the New Westminster Police Department’s “Black Maria” from that year. It was used as an ambulance, for prisoners, and by the pound keeper.


By 1927, ambulance service was provided by the New Westminster Fire Department and was available 24 hours a day. In his 1927 annual report, Chief Watson stated that the department answered 141 calls for accidents and sickness, the ambulance had earned $330 from paying patients, and that clean sheets and pillow slips were furnished every patient, being changed after every call. He added, “now that the cold weather is setting in, we should have 2 or 3 hot water bottles to take along for the comfort of the patients.”

Fast forward 75 years to an article in Fraser Health’s “In Focus” of December 20, 2002, entitled “Heliport ready for an emergency”. “After months of construction and flight tests, the new RCH heliport is fully operational and ready to take air ambulance helicopters transporting trauma patients when the need arises. … In the past, the hospital had to use Sapperton Park across the street as an emergency landing area. Now with the heliport on site, patients can be flown in for tertiary care and be treated and stabilized with minimal delay.” RCH now receives more trauma patients by Air Ambulance than any other hospital in BC.

Santa arrives at RCH Heliport 2005


Add to the Air Ambulance, a ground fleet of 540 ambulances and support vehicles, deployed from 184 stations around the province and staffed by highly skilled paramedics providing Basic Life Support or Advanced Life Support and both patients and doctors from RCH’s early days would be forgiven for thinking that you had lost your mind if you tried to describe to them what we all take for granted.

Next time you hear an ambulance siren or hear the Medijet Air Ambulance overhead, take a moment to remember just how far we’ve come in responding to and providing care for patients during emergencies.

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2 Comments on “From Buckboard to Sikorsky”


  1. […] June 28 post, “From Buckboard to Sikorsky” mentioned that, before the current heliport at Royal Columbian Hospital was built in 2002, they had […]


  2. […] This week’s New Westminster NewsLeader had a great story and photo of Santa arriving at Royal Columbian Hospital by helicopter, bringing Christmas smiles and cheer to patients and staff. It wasn’t the first time he had arrived by air ambulance (see From Buckboard to Sikorsky), […]


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