(Last Updated On: December 26, 2008)
Book Review: Doc Susie
Author: Virginia Cornell
Doc Susie is the biography of Susan Anderson, who was a physician in the Fraser Valley of Colorado. If you have ever seen the TV show, Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman, then this story will be familiar to you. Many say that Doctor Quinn’s character was largely based on Doc Anderson.
The biography covers most of Doc Anderson’s life, from her childhood in Indiana through her elderly years in Fraser. Doc Anderson was born in Indiana. In some strange circumstances, Susan’s dad and mom divorced, resulting in Susan moving with her brother and father to Wichita. They homesteaded there, but heard the call of the gold rush and ended up in the mining town of Cripple Creek, Colorado. Susan was a fine student, and ended up going to school with her brother in the Midwest to eventually become a doctor. At the time, female doctors were not that rare. In the late 1800’s doctor’s wages were relatively poor and training was not nearly as detailed as it is today. In fact, about 25% of Susan’s medical class was female.
After medical school, Doc Susie returned to Cripple Creek. She established a practice there. She met a man, whom she became engaged to, but in a strange set of events, he left her just before the marriage. Records are not clear what happened, or who this man even was, but evidence suggests that Susan’s father had a hand in making this man leave. Shortly after, Susan’s brother John became sick with pneumonia and died. After so much devastation and with rising tensions between her and her father, Susan decided to leave Cripple Creek and began practicing medicine on the Front Range.
During her training to become a doctor, Susan had to spend hours and hours at hospitals, often working through the night. As a result, she developed tuberculosis. This condition worsened as she practiced medicine on the Front Range. Unfortunately, Susan was practicing as a nurse and not a doctor. The training for doctors had suddenly changed with developing technology and medicine. Female doctors were no longer common and Susan’s training seemed inadequate. Susan’s employers ran her ragged as a nurse. Finally, her tuberculosis became so bad she had to make a choice: leave to regain health or die.
Susan chose to move to Fraser Valley to heal herself. After resting for a long period of time, Susan began working at a store. Being a small town, rumors carried, and people knew that Susan had at one time been a doctor. But, Susan kept that part of her life a secret until one day a man came storming into the store, begging her to “save Dave”. Little did she know that her first patient, Dave, was actually a horse! Nevertheless, she saved the horse and people in the community began to call on her as a doctor. The book continues to cover, chapter by chapter, stories of Doc Anderson helping people and saving people’s lives throughout the Fraser Valley. Many times Doc Susie’s patients could barely even pay her money. Nevertheless, Doc Susie chose to save lives, and take from her patients only what they could give.
Doc Suzie had a huge impact on the community of Fraser, and in some instances the community showed their appreciation. In one specific case, the community came together to build her a house. The railroad bigwigs came by one day and informed Doc Susie that her house was on land owned by the railroad company. People from the community heard about this and helped Doc Susie obtain land. Another person donated a barn and lumberjacks disassembled the barn and reconstructed it on Doc Susie’s new piece of land.
The book covers details of what life was like in the Fraser Valley at the time. From the frigid climate to the lonely lumberjacks, historical details were detailed and well-researched by the author. In reading this book, skiers today will understand the origin of many of the names at the present day Winter Park ski area, since several of them are based on old railroad terms.
Perhaps the most interested details in the book was the evolution of the railroad itself and Doc Susie’s part in it. Doc Susie began living in Fraser when the railroad passed over the dangerous Rollin’s Pass. This pass was known to be treacherous, and sometimes trains could be delayed for days. Sometimes Doc had to use the railroad to escort patients to Denver for medical procedures she could not do herself. Doc Susie even became a railroad doctor for a short time. Eventually, Doc Susie became the county Coroner. During this time, the Moffat Tunnel was being built. This tunnel would allow trains to go under Rollins Pass, thus avoiding the Divide and treacherous conditions that come with it, allowing trains to be more reliable and timely. The railroad hired thousands of workers, many of which lived in a temporary community at the entrances of the tunnel. Accidents happened to the workers while building this tunnel and, as coroner, Doc Susie was responsible for investigating any deaths. In one particular case, 6 people died in one tragic explosion.
Fraser Valley residents debated what the building of the tunnel would do to the economy of the valley. Some thought the ease of transportation would help Fraser, others thought otherwise. Doc Susie was always of the mind that Moffat tunnel would be detrimental to Fraser. Railroad politics quickly became evident as the tunnel was being built. Opening ceremonies were happening on the East Portal, but most of the railroad workers lived on the West Portal, near Fraser. Fraser Valley residents protested, saying ceremonies should be on the West Portal, where the workers were located, not at the East Portal, just because it was closer to Denver. Freeman, the owner of the railroad at the time, wouldn’t budge. Finally, Doc Susie suggested that residents of Fraser could walk through the tunnel from the West to the East Portal. But, again Freeman declined permission- because he was secretly already running trains through the tunnel. In the mix, the two leading newspapers in Denver, the Post and the Rocky Mountain News, were having their own battle. Donations of the Post to the railroad gave them special privileges at the ceremonies which Fraser residents discovered and resented. Doc Susie wouldn’t let the feelings of the residents go hidden. When the ceremonial train passed through the opening of the West Portal, she held up a sign that said, “We built this tunnel, the Post didn’t”, captured by the photographers of the Rocky Mountain News and published the next day’s paper. Unfortunately, Doc Susie was right about Moffat tunnel- it did lead to the demise of Fraser until Berthoud Pass was paved and Winter Park became a popular ski destination.
Virginia Cornell, the author of Doc Susie, did her homework when researching materials for this book. Not only did she research Doc Susie’s character, but she also researched daily life in the Fraser Valley at the time as well as how medicine was practiced, especially in a rural community. Doc Susie is a good read, especially for those familiar with the Winter Park / Fraser area.
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