An article by Chris & Connie.
Join us for a tour of the long decommissioned Canadian Forces Station base in Alsask Saskatchewan, in operation during the dark days of the Cold War. We’ll be given extra special permission and all the time we need to explore most of the of the buildings left standing in the extensive complex, inside and out, some of them still used for various functions, others closed up and literal time capsules.
We’ll be teaming up with the Canadian Civil Defence Museum Association out of Edmonton. They’re a dedicated group that documents military history from those strange and terrible times, when the world was just a button push away from annihilation.
Alsask is a small community in west-central Saskatchewan, right beside the Alberta border. If it’s not already clear – Al=Alberta, sask=Saskatchewan. Founded just over a century ago, with the coming of the railway, it’s a sleepy place today and is home to around a hundred people and some change. In the past, early in the town’s history and again when the base was in operation, many more people lived here.
A bit of cold war history to set the tone…
Starting in the 1940s, tensions between the United States and its allies, of which Canada of course was one, and the Eastern Bloc countries lead by the USSR, came to a boiling point. Many felt nuclear war was imminent and in fact at times it came close to happening. We hated them, they hated us. To counter the threat the US and Canada established the North American Aerospace Defense Command or NORAD.
That group constructed a series of strategically placed radar installations across the land including this one in Alsask, which came online in 1963. It was part of “Pine Tree Line” and was the lowest geographically of three roughly parallel rows of radar installations spanning the country. The others were the “DEW Line” (Distant Early Warning) in the far north, then the “Mid-Canada Line” about half way between. They all had one purpose, to watch the skies, keeping an eye open for enemy missiles and planes coming in over the pole. If there was an attack, and dear God they thought for certain it was inevitable, this was the way it’d come.
In support of the radar station, a base was needed to house operation’s personnel. It was almost a town unto itself and there was detached living spaces for those who were married – PMQ: Private or Permanent Married Quarters depending on who you talk to, now called RHUs or Residential Housing Units. There was also barracks for those who were single, a large commissary, a church, school, power plant, many maintenance and support buildings, a fire department, even a jail.
As built it was originally the Royal Canadian Air Force Station or RCAF Alsask but later came to be known as Canadian Forces Station or CFS Alsask (sometimes, in error, according to a few military types we’ve spoken with, called Canadian Forces Detachment or CFD Alsask) and was just north of the town. The radar dome was a bit further north still and will be the subject of its own report soon.
The population of the base varied a bit. Most times, about a hundred and twenty five (or so) personnel were stationed here. Many were married, so add to that their families, plus a good number of civilian staff employed here and the sum of those at the base at any one time could top several hundred or more.
With the winding down of tensions, and changes in technology, the radar installation by the 1980s was no longer essential. It and the base closed in 1987, which no doubt was a massive blow to the local economy. Imagine losing half your population and a big income generator in one stroke of the pen. It must have looked like the end! Not the nuclear end, but economic.
After closing, some of the complex was re-purposed. The recreation centre and swimming pool were taken over by the village (now the RM of Milton comprising several small communities in the area) and are still used to this day. The PMQs became a senior’s village and the old school, their senior’s centre. A fish hatchery took over one building. Other structures, however, were locked up although many later ended up serving other functions – the barracks and former commissary, for example, now have a few people living in them. More on this in a bit.
The photos used in this tour came from two visits to CFS Alsask, separated by a couple months. The weather was quite different each occasion.
Recall many of the buildings we’ll be showing and speaking of are not open to the public. Much of the place is private property.
The Recreation Centre sits at the heart of the complex. Inside is a snack bar, beauty salon, large auditorium/gym supported by huge laminate beams, several playrooms and a two lane five-pin bowling alley. Almost everything is still used to some degree or another. In the bunker-like basement (and it’s possible it was a bunker – read on) is the remains of an old sauna.
Like all the buildings we’ll visit today the decor in each is very retro, but charming anyway, reflecting the styles when the base was in operation. Reminding us this was a military complex, everything is laid out in an orderly, functional and utilitarian fashion.
Next door is the “Gopher Dip Pool”. This building was added in the late 1960s and is still used by townsfolk in the summer months. The day of our visit was the last weekend of operation for the season. It’s just too costly to run year round.
At the entrance to the base, across from the pool, was the former guard shack that protected the entrance. This also housed the CFS Alsask “jail”. The roof has partially collapsed, allowing the elements and pigeons, dozens and dozens of them, inside. Many had clearly decided this was home.
It was a bit too dangerous to enter not just due to the dilapidated state of the structure but also the bio-hazards associated with ankle-deep thick oozing piles of fresh pigeon poop. Not healthy! It was a grim pits of hell type place, and simply the smell alone was overpowering. Gag!
Nearby, but gone, is the location of the former cenotaph or memorial to the fallen.
We next head to the commissary, a building that is lived in. George, a nice old fellow, quiet and reserved, who we’ll soon meet along with his pooch, takes up residence on one side, his brother who was not around this day, on the other. Much of the interior is as built. He shows us the main kitchen area, equipment still in place, the eating halls, and various lounges, divided by rank. A room holds a pool table from the old base days along with a Foosball, shuffleboard and jukebox with all manner of retro tunes available for play. But wait, no pinball? A busy orange carpet, right out of the Brady house, lies underfoot. The walls are equally loud.
George takes us to the barracks across the parking lot. The building, or most of it, is his and he keeps all manner of interesting things on display here, almost set up as though it was a museum, but one that no one knows about. I think he sort of has aspirations to show his collection of this and that to more people, but may not be sure how to go about it. A room holds shelves full of old tabletop radios, all lovingly restored by him, another room model cars, another vintage model trains. That’s just scratching the surface. I could spend a day there. Or more.
We take a lunch break in George’s library, a meal supplied to us by our hosts and guides (thanks Lorriaie and Sarah) coming in from the only restaurant in town, all washed down some good old Vitamin P, Old style Pilsner or simply Pil. It’s a pale concoction that looks like it might be swill but is actually quite agreeable. We love it! It’s the much celebrated and revered “official brew of Saskatchewan” and all its peoples. Everyone in the province, old, young, perhaps some a little too young, seems to drink it religiously.
A burger, a beer, exploring an old military base. It couldn’t be more perfect. This is BIGDoer Nirvana.
We next check out the old power plant. It was for a time a fish hatchery after the base closed, but is now empty and gutted. The building’s current owner, who’s working on the interior, allows us on the roof which affords us a great view of pretty much the entire base including the dome a click or so away, which we’ll visit this same day but will be the subject of a separate article soon enough.
The old base fire hall was later used by the Alsask volunteer fire department, but not any more, although their old fire bus (a school bus with a huge built in water tank) remains inside as though ready for service at any time. Another part of the building is used by the town’s (now RMs) maintenance department and was for a time the town offices. A former workshop next door, now used for storage, has every available space on the ceiling and walls covered in naked ladies from the 1960s and 1970s (turn away if offended). How the heck did they get away with this in a military environment? Our hosts refer to it as “that” building.
A second maintenance shed next door was not visited and is privately owned. The administration building, which we pass next, was not toured either. The owner was not around. A few outbuildings, of little importance, at least to this story, were also skipped.
We head to the Tumbleweed Chapel (we go from pinups to pulpits), the church at the south end of the complex. It’s understood that the occasional service or even wedding is still held here. Confessionals suggest Catholic was the faith of choice for most military folks stationed at CFS Alsask, but I understand the facility was actually inter or multi-denominational (they served all faiths). That would be pretty typical. Light through the stained glass and the glow of that gaudy 1970s era carpets illuminates the interior with a strange almost psychedelic haze.
I survive another church without bursting into flames. It’s a good day.
Across the road was the former base school, John A Silver Elementary (higher grades attended class elsewhere). It later years it was known as the Craft Centre and housed workshops (pottery, woodworking, etc) and a library. Last used in the 1990s when it was a senior’s community centre, the building is almost a sort of time capsule. Looking inside it’s like they just up and left one day and never returned. One section has a collapsed, floor and the roof nearly everywhere leaks badly.
Surrounding the former school is a long forgotten playground and some old ball diamonds.
An old road circles the base here with the lamp posts still in place. Old driveways fronting empty lots tell us this area was once housing. There used to be dozens and dozens of semi-portable residences here and were the places where the married personnel lived (remember they’re called PMQs). After closing they were used as a senior’s village. Only a few of these building’s remain now and are used as bases and accommodations for hunters visiting the region.
More disused playgrounds can be found here and there in the former residential area. Most everything else is gone
A small overgrown golf course is located beside the church. Looming over it and in the distance, looking much like a golf ball itself, is the radar dome, beckoning us to visit. We’re coming!
It’s rumoured that an underground bunker is located on the base grounds. Is it the basement of the rec-centre as we guessed at earlier? It seems too small but is heavily built. I can’t help think that if one does exist, and it seems plausible given this was a military base, that it’d be larger. Perhaps there are many? Who knows? One is also rumoured to be under or near the dome. So far no solid evidence has been found to support any of this. But still, everyone has this hunch.
What’s in store for the buildings and grounds here at CFS Alsask? Those structures that are used and lived in seems to have a solid enough future. The guard house is too far gone I’d say. The Craft Centre, the former school, might not fare well ether. It’s in bad shape.
There has been talk of incorporating the disused or little used buildings at the site into a museum dedicated to the operation and the Cold War era in general. Not an easy nor cheap proposition, but with a commitment I’ve seen it happen. The nearby dome of course is likely to become part of it all – it’s actually a recognized heritage site (the base itself is not) and since the two have always been so connected, it seems natural. This site is the last of its kind.
We’ll be keeping close watch on the place.
The Canadian Civil Defence Museum Association’s website can be viewed here…
CFS Alsask Dome.
More articles of interest…
In Event of Nucular Attack!.
Tuner Valley gave us gas
Alberta 2005 Centennial Railway Museum – what’s going on?
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: September, 2015.
Location: Alsask, SK.
Article references: Book: Captured Memories – A History of Alsask and Surrounding School Districts, Canadian Forces records, University of Regina, Canadian Civil Defence Museum Association.
A BIG thanks: Lorraine Wilke and Sara Kinch-Wilke and George and all the others who helped us when touring the site.
Much of the base is NOT publicly accessible. BIGDoer.com visited with permission.