If Dr. James Cropp’s name rings a bell, it is probably because of the distinctive stone mansion he built at 403 Rose St. near downtown Walla Walla.
What most people may not know is his place in the community’s medical history. He established the Walla Walla Hospital, which stood on Alder Street where our library is today.
Like most folks who settled in Walla Walla in the 19th century, James Cropp had humble origins and faced many hardships.
He came from Virginia and arrived in the West by oxen team in 1872. He was reported by Washington historian W. D. Lyman as having walked across the Cascades from Albany, Oregon, to Walla Walla.
He attended Whitman College and became a teacher, though his aspiration was to become a physician. He taught school until 1876 and that summer worked his way to San Francisco to attend the medical program of the University of California.
He made friends there with a fellow student, Levitt Sajous, who shared James’ goal of attending Jefferson Medical School in Philadelphia. The duo made their way to Philadelphia living mostly, Lyman claims, on a “jar of succotash.” They rode trains for part of the journey but walked or hitched rides with farmers for the last 300 miles of the trip.
After returning to Walla Walla, the newly licensed Dr. Cropp set up a practice. He was in partnership with the prominent physician N. G. Blalock until Dr. Blalock retired in 1879.
Dr. Cropp’s association with Dr. Blalock was undoubtedly helpful to his practice and to his social standing, because in 1879 he married 18-year-old Ida Hungate, the daughter of wealthy farmer Harrison Hungate.
Ida and James had two children. Their first, Harry, died at 2 years of age of scarlet fever. Their second child, daughter Hallie, was born in 1884.
His prominence and increasing wealth allowed J. F. Cropp to build two significant buildings — one a business and the other a home.
The Sisters of St. Mary’s Hospital had been serving the community since its earliest days, and in 1889 St. Mary’s was the only hospital listed in the Walla Walla city directory. Dr. Cropp thought a second hospital was necessary and established the Walla Walla Hospital in 1890.
It was a costly undertaking. Dr. Cropp spent $25,000 building Walla Walla Hospital on Alder near Palouse Street on the former site of lumber yards of Glasford Planing Mill, situated just where our public library is today.
The Walla Walla Hospital began a nurse’s training program in 1906, which preceded St. Mary’s program by four years. Nurses’ quarters adjoined the building, resulting in city directory entries such as “Miss Alice Ball, nurse WW Hospital, res same.”
Dr. Cropp posted ads touting his skill as a surgeon, “particularly abdominal and pelvic surgery.” He also received much newspaper coverage due to his medical competence.
In 1884, Joseph Whitaker, a most respected and prominent citizen, was taken ill, and it was Dr. Cropp who attended him. In 1890, he operated on a young girl whose leg had been badly broken after she became tangled in the reins of a horse and was dragged.
The doctor performed an operation that cut off both ends of her broken bone and the little girl survived. He even gave a course of lectures in medicine at his alma mater, Whitman College.
However, in 1891, not long after his hospital’s opening, Dr. Cropp was involved in an incident that received much press and cast shadows on his reputation.
In February, Dr. Cropp, age 38 and married for 12 years to wife Ida, left Walla Walla in the company of 18-year-old Minnie Caldwell. The two were seen boarding the train together, which was headed for Spokane.
In the days following, the Spokane Falls Review and the Seattle Post Intelligencer featured stories that described Minnie “masquerading” in man’s attire and in the company of Dr. Cropp. She had “paraded” the streets of Spokane, the papers said, “bringing disgrace and shame to her family.”
Minnie’s family later claimed that she had been headed for Ritzville to visit her brother, and although the brother did not say Minnie had actually paid him a visit, he insisted the girl in the newspaper accounts was not his sister.
A reporter for the Spokane Falls Review visited Dr. Cropp’s office and was told he was in Farmington. The reporter then interviewed Mrs. Cropp, who said her husband was in Cheney on business.
Ida Cropp had seen the article in newspaper, she said, but did not believe her husband was the man described. The consequences of Dr. Cropp’s indiscretion and his contributions to community health will be covered in Part II.
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