It’s hard to imagine South Lake Tahoe without a hospital. But before Barton Memorial Hospital opened on Nov. 23, 1963, there were few nearby services for the sick and injured.
“All my children were born in Reno or St. Mary’s because we didn’t have a doctor or a hospital,” said longtime resident Patty Olson, who helped organize fundraising for Barton in the late 1950s.
The hospital celebrated 50 years last weekend, with a 1960s-themed event, featuring a dunk tank, free face painting, free cotton candy and free popcorn. For the past five decades, the hospital has not only provided much-needed medical services, but has also played a key role in the development of South Lake Tahoe.
The tiny community that had settled full time in Lake Tahoe in the 1950s were a sturdy bunch, Olson recalled. Trips to medical facilities in Carson City or Reno were reserved for the most serious situations. Current City Councilman Hal Cole remembers making the trip after he dislocated his arm while pole vaulting in high school.
“When you got hurt up here before Barton came, it was a big deal,” Cole said.
Olson remembers one sick resident who had to be flown out by seaplane in the middle of a particularly harsh winter.
After it became clear the town would not grow without a hospital, a group of citizens rallied for donations. With the support of the community, the group raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. Bill and Ouida Barton donated six acres of land, the hospital’s future home. The fundraising effort was completely grassroots, Olson remembered.
“It was community,” she said. “We didn’t have consultants. If you wanted to do something in those days, you did it yourself.”
The original hospital structure was designed as a snowflake. Construction began in 1962. With the opening of the airport in 1959 and the Olympics at Squaw Valley in 1960, Lake Tahoe was bustling. The South Shore now had more than 14,000 full-time residents.
“Having an airport and a hospital all of a sudden put South Lake Tahoe on the map,” Cole said.
Visiting stars often stopped by Barton or made hefty donations. In 1973, Elvis Presley helped finance a new cardiac and intensive-care wing. Duke Ellington and Bette Midler also contributed to the growth of Barton.
Today, Barton Memorial Hospital boasts dozens of services, from magnetic resonance imaging to da Vinci surgery and an urgent care helipad. Their orthopaedics department is world renown.
“Nobody likes to go to the hospital. But when you need to, you want to have the right services and the right facility there to take of you or your family members,” said chairman of Barton’s board of directors Kirk Ledbetter, whose family led the founding effort.
The spread of services is part of the reason Barton has endured in a town that has changed staggeringly, Ledbetter said.
“I think that just demonstrates how the hospital has been able to adapt to the changing community and the changing needs over time, which is very important,” he said.
Though it started with just 38 beds, the hospital now employs hundreds of residents. And the doctors and nurses of Barton have saved countless lives.
“How many lives are saved because they’re within minutes of care here as opposed to waiting for a helicopter to come and take them somewhere?” Cole said.