Ontario Hospital (Brockville Psychiatric Hospital)
A little further along Highway No. 2 on the north side you would pass several very impressive large stone buildings encompassed by a stone fence. Depending on the time of the year when you drove by, there would have been men working in fields of vegetables on either side of the road. To the south you would get an impressive view of the St. Lawrence River and Morristown, NY on the other side.
Those large buildings were the Ontario Hospital also known as the Brockville Psychiatric Hospital and those fields were the hospital farms. The hospital was built in 1892-94 as a provincial Asylum for the Insane. The farm associated with the hospital was intended to allow the institution to be self sufficient, however the surplus produce was sold at the local Brockville market, and rail cars full of potatoes were shipped to other institutions across Canada.
The following excerpts on the history of the Ontario Hospital are taken from Glenn J. Lockwood’s book “The History of Brockville” published in 2006.
“The Pickens Point property (Lot 6 in Elizabethtown’s First Concession was chosen as a site with land sloping down to the St. Lawrence to provide for the sewer drainage. A stretch of land from the Grand Trunk Line to the river was purchased (110 acres) and more was expropriated (97 acres on Lot 5) from J.J.Henderson. The additional land was needed so the asylum could grow its own food.
The asylum was set up on a farm plan, with a main building commanding the hill north of the Prescott Road. Within a year, six farm cottages flanked it, three on each side, with a stable, carriage house, tall water tank reservoir and hose tower outbuildings.
The asylum was one of the largest residential buildings ever built in Victorian Canada, with a façade 400 feet long and a tower seven storeys high. At the back the kitchen and pantries were flanked by large dining halls. There was a bakery beneath the kitchen and, behind it, a laundry, boiler house and coal vaults. By 1906, the asylum housed 800 residents and employed 75 people.
The extensive grounds had a purpose. It was here the residents worked. We should not assume they were exploited. This was an age when self-sufficiency was a virtue, and it was seen as a disgrace to live on public charity. By giving residents work, the asylum boosted their self-worth and contradicted the view that they were a burden on the public purse. Most patients were soothed by familiar work, and pleased to contribute. Higher functioning patients took charge of others, thus enabling a small staff to manage huge numbers of residents. Evenings were set aside for relaxation, including piano playing, reading, cards, concerts, daces, skating, football, lawn bowling and boating.
The Asylum now known as the Psychiatric Hospital continued to grow and flourish. The number of employees has increased to 107 by 1942. In the 1930’s, electroconvulsive therapy began to be used. Although the process was frightening and painful and had terrible side effects, it was deemed beneficial at the time.
In the early 1950’s the hospital was completely renovated. The ‘outmoded, over crowed facilities of Victorian Standards and design have been transformed in four years into one of the finer mental institutions on the North American continent.
The number of jobs at the Brockville Psychiatric Hospital dwindled along with the flow of in-patients in the 1970’s and 1980’s (from 1,618 in 1964 to 748 in 1975, to 237 in 1995). At the same time the flow of out patients grew from 300 in 1984 to 1,200 in 1995. In 1961, a new residential unit was built, but the hospital farm closed in 1967. The treatment of mental illness had evolved. A forensics ward opened in the hospital in 1975. Assertive Community Treatment emerged in 1991 but by 1997, plans were in place to close the facility and to merge it with the Royal Ottawa Hospital, thus removing 374 jobs from Brockville. Deft work by MPP Bob Runciman secured a stay of execution. The hospital was transformed into the St. Lawrence Valley Correctional and Treatment Centre, with community acute psychiatric care and forensic programs continuing to operate from the site. The result was a net gain of jobs.