Remembering the Old MacLean School, Part One
On February 5, 1981, the lives of 300 MacLean Elementary School students changed forever when a fire tore through the building and completely razed it. I remember this incident very well because I was a student at MacLean at the time, and I can say for certain that this fire, even though I was only six at the time, really did change my life in significant ways.
But let’s go back a bit in time first, because the MacLean School that burned down in 1981 was actually built to replace another school that was also destroyed by fire – and under similarly mysterious circumstances.
In 1898, the gold rush in Rossland was in in full swing and the town’s population was exploding, which meant lots of kids, which meant more school space was necessary. Built in that year, Central School was located on Fourth Avenue and St. Paul Street, and although it was reportedly an attractive building, it had a host of problems. It had very poor plumbing and wasn’t properly heated. One source says that in the winter time, the ink wells often didn’t thaw out before noon. There was no insulation, and no electrical wiring – which meant no lighting. By 1915 there were 350 students at the school, occupying all eight of its rooms. The need for a new school was obvious to everyone, however no one could agree on location. In order to save costs, the Ratepayers’ Association wanted to just demolish the old school and rebuild on the same site, however school trustees didn’t believe the location was adequate and wanted to build a new school at the corner of St. Paul Street and Second Avenue. The St. Paul and Fourth Ave. location wasn’t hooked up to the sewer system at the time, and the lot was too small to accommodate a reasonably-sized playground.
On June 23, 1917, the school burned to the ground – a suspected arson that remained unproven. With 350 kids now school-less, the argument over where to locate a new school heated up. The St. Paul & Second Ave. location was not ideal; there was a large rock outcropping there that needed to be dealt with and then there was the small issue of a pond, often referred to derisively as “a swamp” at the northwest corner of the lot. The issue became quite heated. Two aldermen, Blumer and Hanna, wanted the school to remain at the old site and have it hooked up to a septic tank, but that didn’t go over well with everyone as septic systems were causing problems at other facilities in town, particularly the hospital and Cook Avenue School. Blumer and Hanna pushed for a referendum to settle the matter, but the mayor intervened, saying that a referendum was illegal because the law at the time said that the school board had the final say where a new school could be built.
The school board didn’t waste any time once the mayor put a stop to the bickering and the St. Paul & Second Ave. location was all of a sudden a construction zone. With the help of some mining equipment from the Nickel Plate Mine, the outcropping was removed. Five houses also had to be relocated; they were moved to Queen Street between First and Second Avenue. Something was evidently done with the pond, too. Meanwhile the students attended school at the Armories and the Methodist Church.
The new school was named MacLean and it opened its doors in the fall of 1918. Built of brick with walls, stairwells, and the basement made from solid concrete, it was considered to be much more fireproof than the old Central School, though it’s shiny hardwood floors would turn out to be a curse.
At 12:30am on the night of February 5, 1981, a Thursday, the MacLean School intruder alarm went off at the Trail Fire Department, and staff there alerted the RCMP. The on-call officer went to the school, however he had to wait for a school board official to open the building for him so he could take a look around. This was when the fire was discovered. A fire crew was on the scene by 1:30am, and eventually firefighters from Trail, Cominco, and Warfield came to help put out the blaze, which they got under control by 4:30am.
The fire gutted the whole third floor of the building, which housed grades 5 through 7, and was was said to have started in the southern section of the school. Sylvia McGregor’s grade one class, which I was a member of, was particularly hard hit. That room lost all of its books, records, and learning materials. Mrs. McGreggor put out a call to community members for books and materials that would be suitable for teaching grade one students. On a happy note, Wanda Trussler’s kindgarten class’s pet gerbil was saved by a quick-thinking fireman named Merv Olson, whose son was in that class. According to a Trail Times story “Olson entered the basement, remembered the gerbil, and brought it out, quivering and wet, but safe.” Mrs. Trussler fielded calls all Thursday from parents and students concerned about the gerbil, who was by that time safe at the Trussler residence, though most likely pretty traumatized.
It was obvious from the start that this was an arson. Once the fire was out, there were signs of vandalism on the third floor that included yellow spray paint on the walls, and the basement had also been vandalized with yellow paint and general ransacking.
There was a suspect, but no charges. From the newspaper articles I found, a name was never released, but this is a small town with a vibrant rumour mill. Over the years, I heard names and theories and stories, but this was one mystery that would remain unsolved, just like the mystery of the Central School arson, though in that case no one was very motivated to investigate the case because, most likely because that fire turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
However the unsolved mysteries of how these two fires began isn’t the only thing they have in common. In part two of this duology of articles on the old MacLean School, we’ll see how uncanny history can be as it repeats itself, because the parallels between the aftermath of the Central School fire and the MacLean fire are very remarkable indeed.
Newsclippings from The Trail Times at the time
Rossland: The First 100 Years, by Rosa Jordan & Derek Choukalos