Photo Credit: Kitimat Museum and Archives
est. 1952: Kitimat’s smelter-site school
On July 20th, 1952, Alcan posted ads in Vancouver papers seeking applications for elementary and high school teachers and one principal for their Smelter-site School in Kitimat. The applicants had to be professionals and must have possessed a strong sense of adventure – they were applying to teach children of smelter-site construction workers at a school perched on the perimeter of a mega-project in coastal northern BC.
At that time, in 1952, Alcan’s big project was in its beginning stages. Janice Beck, in her book, Three Towns: A History of Kitimat, mentions that the first construction crews arrived in coastal Kitimat in April, 1951. Alcan was building the ocean-side aluminum smelter at the same time as clearing land for a planned permanent community. In the meantime, while waiting for the trees to be cleared and the streets to be paved, the workers and their families lived at the smelter site. The site at this time had bunkhouses, a cookhouse, offices and a recreation hall. Workers came to Kitimat and some of them brought their families. The new settlers and the industry recognized the need for the expected amenities of a community – a bank, an RCMP shack, a hospital, a Hudson’s Bay Company store and a school for the children.
Jennifer Barbosa is a teacher at Nechako Elementary School in Kitimat. While in university, she researched the history of the smelter-site school at the Kitimat Museum and Archives as well as conducting interviews with former students. She states, “The Alcan personnel department contacted the Department of Education and it was decided that Alcan would build a three-room school to accommodate the 60 to 80 expected students.”
One of the people that responded to the ad was Frank J. Bower. Bower was interviewed by the personnel director of Kitimat Constructors, Alcan’s personnel director and one representative from the Vancouver School Board. Bower must have been what the panel was looking for because he was hired on July 30, 1952 to be the Smelter-site School’s first principal. According to Barbosa, Bower was asked to start work on July 30 to design, equip and staff the future school.
At the last minute, the school’s plans were changed to include a basement. In mid-August, just weeks before school was set to start, a site was selected and clearing and levelling began. The school was Alcan’s private school but still had to keep up with the curriculum as any other BC school. Bower hired Miss M. Cavill for Grades 1-4 and Mr. Shutz for high-school math and science, leaving Grades 5-11 to teach himself. He ordered supplies and wrote in his 1953 unpublished notes, The History of Kitimat School, “we have more reference books and supplementary readers than any school in BC, I think.” Bower was amazed at the fast pace of construction. “The 60 or so men who worked on the school had performed a miracle,” he wrote.
On September 15, 1952, the Smelter-site School was officially opened with great fanfare. There was a flag-raising, speeches, school photographs, tea, ice cream and cookies. Twenty-six children were registered to attend the school. Barbosa says, “that evening a celebration dance was held at the school for Alcan personnel.” This was the beginning of a settled lifestyle for the numerous workers, many of whom had only recently been reunited with their families.
Attendance soared. Bower recalled that every week five or six more students registered. Just four short months after opening, the school was already at its expected maximum capacity of 80 students; all desks and classrooms were full. Winter temperatures tested the school’s heating system and supplementary heat had to be supplied by piping hot water from the Delta King boiler’s.
Winter also brought typical school functions: a Christmas pageant, square dance, student council elections, team sports and a school newspaper—the Tamatik. In the new year of 1953 an additional teacher came on staff to help out, and the Parent Teacher Association managed to pull together a Kindergarten class.
Barbosa points to a unique feature of the Smelter Site School. “The school was also used as a night school for the adults of the smelter-site construction community,” she explains. “A member of the Kitimat Constructors was also a teacher, Mr. Kergan.” Between Kergan and Bower, the school hosted night school for 40 new Canadians in two English classes. Bower recalled that in one particular class, 15 European countries were represented. The facility was also used by other groups: church groups (Anglican, Catholic, Fellowship and United), boy scouts and wolf cubs, ladies’ club, as well as an art club and a fencing club.
In the summer of 1953 the Department of Education announced Kitimat would be School District 80. That fall, at the start of the new school year, records show that 110 students were registered at the Smelter-site School. The newly constructed permanent community of Kitimat was well on its way to being established and Barbosa explains that in the winter of 1953 the first school board was elected. Records show there was a referendum for a permanent school on the town site, which was approved. The spring of 1954 saw an inevitable decline in Smelter-site School attendance as the smelter site families transitioned their focus to the town site. “By the end of the school year there was a whole bus load of students that would bus from the smelter site to town each day,” states Barbosa.
The first government exams were held in June, 1954 and Donna Sparks became Kitimat’s first graduate. Principal Bower wrote a message to the students in the year-book at the close of the school year: “These past two years you have had an experience few have had—that of being pioneers. During this time, the school has been established, a new school district for British Columbia has been set up and you have been a real foundation of formal education in Kitimat.”
Former students of the Kitimat Smelter-site School recall this pioneer school at the edge of the industrial construction with pride. Barbosa reflects on the school’s brief history, “the students and staff there really demonstrated true determination and resourcefulness, they were true pioneers who fostered the growth of Kitimat’s school community.”