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Cranbrook history marked by fires, including its schools

A brief history of Cranbrook school fires
Amy Woodland Elementary School was damaged by fire June 30, and will not re-open this fall. (Trevor Crawley photo)

Fire is often the signal event in a city’s history. Think of London, Chicago, or Fernie. Lloydminster and Trois Rivieres were irrevocably changed by great fires. The Creston Mercantile Fire of 1949 is remembered to this day.

Cranbrook, too, is a community marked by fire throughout its history. The destruction of what was then “Chinatown” (along what’s now 7th Avenue) in 1931; the Norbury Hotel and the Hanson Block in 1959; or within more recent memory, the Tudor House in 2003, the Windsor Arms in 2004, the 800 block of Baker Street in 2012 … Fires leave their mark upon our collective conscious, more so than other types of disasters, such as floods.

The recent fire at Amy Woodland Elementary School has caused a community disruption beyond the damage to a building. (Of course, the extent of the damage is still being assessed. However, smoke damage and think layers of soot throughout the school put in question even materials and personal effects being retrieved.)

Aș Principal Scott Holt writes, in an open letter via School District 5:

“The building is currently undergoing various inspections to assess the damage. However, given the extent of the damage and current trade shortages, we do not anticipate that Amy Woodland Elementary School will be operational during the 2024/25 school year.

“In an effort to keep our students together, classroom lists and student cohorts for the next academic year have been carefully organized by our staff. Plans are being implemented to relocate these classroom cohorts, comprising students, teachers, and support staff, to learning spaces in other schools in Cranbrook. This will include busing options as multiple sites will need to be utilized.

“Once the relocation plan is finalized, parents will be informed of the school their child will be attending come September.”

This is a massive upheaval to the community, not least, of course, to the students and staff of Amy Woodland. Consider the logistics of feeding 250 students and their teachers into spaces around town, with as little adverse effect as possible to classroom cultures, friendship and peer groups, lesson plans and curricula, and family life.

We have confidence in School District 5 to work it out, though hard work it will be for sure. Nonetheless, the Amy Woodland fire of 2024, as small or as large as it was, will have a not inconsiderable affect on a generation of students.

Of course, this has happened before, in our community. Significant disruption has occurred because of school fires, starting with the destruction by fire of Cranbrook’s very first school, in May, 1909.

From the Cranbrook Herald:

“About three o’clock this morning some railway men working in the CPR yard discovered that the school house was on fire. They immediately gave the alarm and the fire department turned out at once. The fire had such a hold that all that could be done was to take care of the buildings nearby. By half past three the old school building was a mere heap of hot ashes.

“It is impossible to say how the building caught fire. The janitor says that there was absolutely no fire in the building at 6:30 last night. In fact, some of the teachers complained that their classrooms were cold as early as 3:30. However, the fire started. It is certain that it originated within the building and downstairs, because the timbers of the lower part of the building fell inward as the roof collapsed. The burning of the old school removes an old landmark from the city.

“The first school ever held in Cranbrook was in a part of the building now occupied by the Prospector, and the first school teacher was Mrs. J.F.M. Pinkham. In 1899 a small school was built and in 1902 the big school was built.”

The Herald commented that the burning of the school was a great loss to Cranbrook, “not only financially, as there was no insurance, but because it will be almost impossible to arrange for the holding of school until after the summer vacation.”

The newspaper added the reaction of the students:

“Whilst some of the children are sorry to see the old building burned, most of them were delighted at the prospect of the enforced holiday. This morning, the ruins were like a human ant hill, swarming with boys and girls. ‘That’s where my seat used to be,’ said a fat rosy-faced boy of about eight. ‘I wonder where my pencil box went,’ said a bright little girl. Each and everyone of the youngsters had something to say, and many were the regrets for the loss of this or that favourite book, compasses, squares and so forth.”

“The old school is gone, but the new fifty thousand dollar building is under way, and in a short time Cranbrook’s educational institution will arise like the Phoenix from its ashes in a more glorified form.”

The students’ classes were subsequently held in the curling rink and the Sunday school space of the Presbyterian Church.

Eighty-five years later, the Cranbrook School Board was concerned with the costs of a small fire that started in a storage area under Gordon Terrace Elementary’s gymnasium, that “may end up costing thousands of dollars to repair.”

As reported in the Townsman of June, 1994:

“I think the public needs to know that these things are not a minor cost," board chair Anna-Mae Gartside said. “The public ends up paying the cost.”

Peter Maloff, manager of Human Resources and operations told the board that the fire caused damage to books, stage props and chairs, as well as to a support beam at the north end of the gym. Maloff said the beam would have to be replaced and dry wall will have to be reinstalled.

The District also had to pay to have the mess cleaned up, so the school could open June 6.

In the summer of 2003, a fire ravaged St. Mary’s Catholic Independent School, that likewise rendered it unusable. The students and staff were relocated to the then vacant Muriel Baxter Elementary School building, which had only recently closed due to declining enrolment. St. Mary’s School was housed there from September until after Spring Break, 2004. The cause of the fire was never determined.

The Muriel Baxter Elementary School building, closed in 2002, was itself destroyed by fire, in December, 2008, shortly before it was to be demolished.

And on Nov. 11, 2015, Cranbrook RCMP and the Cranbrook Fire Department jointly began an investigation into a fire which started on the roof at Laurie Middle School. On Nov. 18, "after an exhaustive investigation," Cranbrook RCMP took a 14-year-old male youth into custody for arson.

We wish all the best to School District 5, and Amy Woodland students and staff all the best moving forward.

With files from the Cranbrook History Centre and Archives

Barry Coulter

About the Author: Barry Coulter

Barry Coulter had been Editor of the Cranbrook Townsman since 1998.
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