2015-02-20 / Community

A Window on the Past

Early ambulance service spotty
By Craig H. Skelton
South Portland Historical Society


A 1947 Chrysler ambulance. (Courtesy of Jeff Hobbs) A 1947 Chrysler ambulance. (Courtesy of Jeff Hobbs) Perhaps it happened this way in cities and towns all across the country. Prior to establishing any type of ambulance service, if not by good Samaritan, local and state police were enlisted to transport injured parties from an accident scene to nearby medical help. At the time of the Long Creek Air Tragedy in 1944, Rachel Deans, a longtime South Portland resident who worked at Maine General where the victims were taken, said, “We didn’t have any ambulance service then. It was the policemen that were the ambulance.”

A transition appears to have occurred locally after World War II. Both Hobbs Funeral Home on Cottage Road and George Henry Funeral Home on Ocean Street owned vehicles used for ambulance duty that were not hearses. These folks worked in conjunction with the South Portland Police Department.

About that same time in neighboring Scarborough, the state police would call a local funeral home to transport injured parties in a hearse. There was no wellestablished communication network and in the time it took to transport victims with traumatic injuries, they would often die en route. Dr. Philip Haigis, who lived across from the current Cabela’s store and adjacent to a road now named for him, knew that time was the critical factor.

According to Michael Thurlow, fire chief of Scarborough, Doc Haigis devised a plan to organize a group of residents who he trained in first aid and vehicle extrication techniques. Through his connection with the Scarborough Lions Club and its generous support, Doc Haigis and Lions Club members were able to raise money to purchase a van and, in October 1951, organized the first volunteer rescue unit in Maine.

Still, a bit farther south, George Gorman, fire chief in South Berwick, tells me that a funeral parlor in Dover, New Hampshire would come across the river and handle ambulance duty before formal ambulance rescue service was established in the Berwicks.

George recalled that back in the 1960s there used to be a company called Earle’s Ambulance in Eliot. The local firefighters at the time used to refer to the company as the Scoop & Screw. He said that when one of the ambulances would show up at an accident scene, attendants would scoop the injured party onto the stretcher, strap them on and toss the whole rig aboard the ambulance and then the guys would jump in the vehicle and screech off toward the nearest hospital.

In 1954 the city of South Portland purchased a Packard ambulance from George Henry Funeral Home and assigned Llewellyn McGouldrick and Earle Angell as the first firefighters to provide ambulance service. The fire department continued to store the ambulance in the funeral home garage, as it was across the street from then-Central Station on Thomas Street. Mark Angell tells me that having small children at home, Earle found the work particularly difficult when young victims were involved. The two firefighters worked opposite shifts and individually would work with a police officer to transport patients in emergencies.

Our own Joe Nalbach, member of Thornton Heights Company No. 6, remembers that the Portland Police Department in the late 1960s was using the paddy wagon for double duty. One time, Joe said, an officer driving the paddy wagon was dropping off a drunk at the police station. At that time the station was next to the county courthouse and the parking there was really tight. He got a call pressing the paddy wagon into ambulance duty and quickly jumped in, threw it in reverse and smashed into a couple of sheriff’s cars, slammed it into gear and drove off. The damage was mostly superficial, but both cars were missing grilles and headlights from the encounter. He also said the paddy wagon smelled pretty bad after tossing drunks around in it on their way to the slammer. Enough said there.

It is interesting to note that the Chrysler ambulance owned by Hobbs is not a wagon and yet reflects an innovative way to fit a gurney inside a sedan. Station wagons during that time and prior evolved from trucks and consisted mostly of wood boxes built upon a steel frame. Woody wagons required a lot of maintenance, including recoating of the wood finish and tightening of bolts and screws that loosened when the wood expanded and contracted throughout the seasons. It wasn’t until 1949 when Chrysler introduced the first all-steel wagon as the result of new advances in production techniques developed when post war automobile manufacturing resumed. Allsteel wagon bodies eliminated the cost of maintenance associated with woodies and resulted in a much quieter ride.

In 1963, our fire department began recording ambulance calls, and for that year there were a total of 53. Today, rescue calls total into the thousands each year and the quick response from our ambulance service and the emergency training they now receive has resulted in saving countless lives. We owe a big thank you to all our firefighters and paramedics.

Craig Skelton is a guest columnist and member of South Portland Historical Society.

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