Join us as we take a tour of an abandoned school in the Crowsnest Pass of Alberta, a fine looking albeit simple two storey brick structure constructed close to a hundred years ago. It’s been a very long time since it was last used as a learning facility and today sits empty, boarded up and mostly forgotten. We explored it, with the owner’s permission, on the very last day of 2014. What a nice way to spend new year’s eve day.
Keep in mind this building is not publicly accessible and should only be viewed from the outside. Don’t trespass and take only pictures.
Constructed in 1919 as West Ward School, it is located in west Coleman on land acquired some years prior. It cost the princely sum of $25000 to build. In the 1920s its name was changed to Cameron School in honour of a local politician and school board official. The building was expanded upon in the 1950s with that low single story section in the back being added at that time.
Information on when classes ended for good is a bit sketchy. Some people gave us a blanket statement, saying the last year was sometime in the early 80s, while others argued 1982 or 1983 specifically. Regardless, we know one thing – it was used as a movie set around 84-85, so it couldn’t have been in use at that time.
This facility served grades one through six, I believe throughout its history.
Since it closed the building has not been for anything else, as far as we know, save for that movie role we spoke of (more info later in the article). At one point, not terribly long ago, there was plans to turn it into housing of some sort, condos I believe, but no hard data has been found to back that up. A large number of new bricks on pallets on the one side of the structure suggest something was planned however. Some photos form the late 2000s and early 2010s show a for sale sign on the building.
Sizing up the building from the outside, one is immediately struck by its overall simplicity. It’s square and plain with only some hip roof elements at the top to break all those boxy lines. It’s still imposing however, as most brick buildings are. An odd feature is the scarcity of windows on the front (south facing) side. Based on old photos we’ve seen of the school, it’s changed very little, both inside and out, over the years.
On entering, we see we’re not the first ones here – not surprisingly I suppose – and scrawled all over the chalkboards (and sadly on some walls) is evidence of earlier visitors. I guess people have been finding their way inside. The rooms here are for the most part empty, save for a nice looking cook stove found in one.
You’ll notice some odd openings over and under one of the chalk boards seen. They’re like cupboards, but why the odd placement? Perhaps in earlier times, they served some other purpose? But what exactly, who knows. Strange.
All the main windows were boarded up tight, keeping the weather and birds out.
The layout of the main building is simple. There are two class rooms on each of the two floors, each with an attached mud room. In the addition are a number of smaller classes, quite tiny ones in fact, a wood paneled room with some bench seats, its purpose unknown, along with biffies and small kitchen. There is no gym or auditorium.
The dark basement was full of dust and dirt and spiders and so we kept our distance. I hate creepy-crawlies. There was little to see there anyway based upon our quick look. There is one old coal chute down there with a big metal door. That material was mined locally by the way, and was used to heat the structure at one time.
The grounds surrounding the school are modest in size. A plaque is seen above the main entryway with the school’s name emblazoned across it. The flag pole, angled off the front facade, is still in place.
As mentioned the school, after closing, made an appearance in a movie. This was the 1985 Disney flick, Journey of Natty Gann, set during the depression of the 1930s. The building’s role was that of a reform school, which the main charter attends after being found vagrant.
On the east side of town is another school, Coleman High, similar in size and also rather boxy appearance, being used today as a museum.
It’s hoped the building has some kind of future – it is historically recognized to a degree at least. The owner, who we spoke with only briefly, didn’t seem sure what was next. Structurally wise, and as I always say as a disclaimer “I am no building engineer”, it looks solid enough. Brick has a way of lasting. So for now, even in it’s not being worked on, one can assume it’ll be around for a while. It is surrounded by lived-in houses, which probably helps keep trouble (meaning vandals) down, somewhat at least.
The movie we spoke that the school appeared in…
Journey of Natty Gann – reform school.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: December, 2014.
Location: Crowsnest Pass, AB.
Article sources: “Crowsnest and its People” history book, local residents.
The school is private property and the interior not publicly accessible. We had permission to enter.