Chilliwack History Perspectives - April 12, 2020 - Reprinted With Permission
The one-room school house was a common staple of many small, rural frontier communities in BC around the turn of 20th century. One such example of this quaint institution in Chilliwack still stands today, 111 years after it was constructed. The Promontory Flats School, in the Promontory Heights area of the city, was constructed in 1909 situated on what is today Teskey Way, and over the years it has been lovingly restored and maintained.
Today’s Promontory Heights is a vibrant and steadily growing urban core in the southern area of the City of Chilliwack, with tremendous views looking out over the city and valley. However, until the latter part of the 19th century this area was essentially wilderness, with no residents. This status changed in 1886 when Promontory welcomed its first settlers, Edward Thornton (1866-1939) and his wife, who purchased 263 acres upon which they developed a mixed farm.
Five years later, in 1891, Edward Thornton’s brother, George (1860-1942), along with his wife, joined Edward living and farming in the glorious beauty of Promontory Heights. Nevertheless, early Promontory remained sparsely settled for a number of years thereafter, with much undeveloped land, trees, stumps, etc.
Image 1: This 1910 image was captured facing northwest towards the one-year-old Promontory Flats School (PFS). At that time, most of Promontory remained sparsely settled, with much undeveloped land, trees, stumps, etc. Visible to the left centre of the photo, 400 metres northwest of the PFS, is the house of George Thornton, the brother of Edward Thornton on whose donated land the PFS was constructed.
As evident in the image, both the PFS and the Thornton house are located on relatively level landscape in an area of the community that accordingly came to be known as Promontory Flats.
George Thornton’s house, located at 5655 Promontory Road near the northwest corner of Promontory Road and Teskey Way (just 100 metres north of today’s Promontory “Four Corners”), was also built in 1909. The sturdily constructed residence included a full basement and attic, and as George Thornton was a prominent fruit grower in BC the cellar floors of his house were earthen. To maintain appropriate humidity for Thornton’s fruit storage, there were one-quarter-inch metal pipes in the structure’s walls, extending from the basement to the roof, allowing ventilation for the fruit. In addition, 100 feet behind the house was a structure referred to as the “acid house” (not evident in this image) in which Thornton preserved fruits and vegetables in large glass containers.
In 2008, at the age of 99 years, George Thornton’s house was torn down and today the location of his house is an empty lot (see Image #9). Also indicated in this image are the locations of where Teskey Way and Promontory Road would be in later years. The perspective of this image is somewhat similar to that of Image #9, but taken 109 years earlier, and from ground level. (Image Credit: Chilliwack Museum and Archives Collection, Photo Number: PP501300)
By the early 1900s, Promontory Heights was becoming more populated with new farms and young families with increasing numbers of school-aged children. For a number of years, these children had to travel to Sardis School, located on Higginson Road, just off Vedder Road - a challenging round trip of 8.5 kilometres from where the Promontory Flats School (PFS) would eventually be situated. As more families moved to Promontory, the demand for a new local school became louder, and finally the BC Government responded with plans for a new elementary school in Promontory Heights.
Although Promontory Heights rises to 600 feet above the valley floor, there is an area referred to as Promontory Flats, where the landscape levels out somewhat, before continuing its climb towards the south. A significant portion of Edward Thornton’s 263 acres of land holdings was located in the Promontory Flats area, and to assist in and expedite construction of the area’s much needed elementary school, he donated one acre of his land for this purpose.
Image 2: In June 1909 construction of the new Promontory Flats School commenced, and five months later, on November 1, 1909, the one-room school house opened to 17 students. In advance of PFS’s opening, the school board made plans to source wood to heat the structure. This image presents the call for tenders notice that ran in the October 20, 1909, edition of the Chilliwack Progress for a supply of wood to heat 10 small schools in the Township (including PFS). (Image Credit: Chilliwack Progress Archives)
This parcel of land dedicated for Promontory’s new school was situated on the south side of today’s Teskey Way, between Russell Road and Alpine Crescent, a location with relatively few slopes. [Note: Teskey Way, in its current form, was initially envisioned in 1988 and officially opened on June 16, 1997.]
Image 3: This circa 1920s image faces south towards the façade of the one-room Promontory Flats school house. Note the degree of vegetation around the structure, and its rustic nature. The perspective of this photo is somewhat similar to that of Image #11, but captured approximately a century earlier. (Image Credit: Chilliwack Museum and Archives Collection, Photo Number: PP503817)
In May 1909, sealed tenders were requested from contractors for construction of a “small one-room frame school house”. Construction soon commenced, and five months later, the new Promontory Flats School opened on November 1, 1909, somewhat after the start of the 1909-1910 school year. The opening student body comprised 17 students, including members of the Thornton, Jinkerson, and Bailey families. The school house was located just 400 metres southeast of the George Thornton family home (see Image #1).
Image 4: This 1931 images captures the view from PFS’s front steps, facing north towards Chilliwack and the valley floor below. The perspective of this photo is similar to that of Image #10, but taken 89 years earlier. (Image Credit: Chilliwack Museum and Archives Collection, Photo Number: PP503811)
For the next 32 years, the PFS was an integral and beloved aspect of the Promontory community, accommodating Grades 1 to 6. However, on December 1, 1941, the Township school board made the decision to close PFS, effective after the end of that year’s Christmas holidays. The school’s last class took place on December 19, 1941.
Image 5: This 1963 aerial image focuses on the “Four Corners” district of Promontory Flats, (i.e., the corner of Promontory Road and Teskey Way). The lack of overall development in the area at that time is remarkable – 54 years after the PFS was constructed. Identified in the photo is the PFS, and 400 metres to the northwest, the home of George Thornton. Refer to Image #1 for a ground-level perspective of these two landmarks. (Image Credit: City of Chilliwack)
The reason for PFS’s closure related to the structure requiring many repairs and alterations, as well as painting and new lighting. It was believed the costs of this upgrade would not exceed the benefit that Promontory’s students would receive from attending a larger school. At the time, there were 18 students in PFS, and starting in 1942 they would be transported daily to Sardis School.
Image 6: This 1974 image, facing southwest, shows how the Promontory Flats School structure looked at that time, prior to completion later that year of its major renovation/restoration project. The perspective of this photo is similar to that of Image #13, but taken 46 years earlier. (Image Credit: Chilliwack Progress Archives)
With the closure of PFS, there was immediate community interest in the structure for non-educational uses. In March 1942, the old one-room school house was rented for Sunday School sessions and occasional church events. It would also be used as a de facto community hall for the remainder of the 1940s, albeit a relatively small one. However, circa 1950, the structure was condemned as it only had one door, and consequently closed for all uses. It would remain vacant and neglected for several years, until a new chapter of a long-established national women’s group pumped new life into the old school house.
Image 7: Starting in 1971, the old Promontory school house underwent a major three-year restoration/renovation project that would ensure its structural integrity and usefulness for decades to come. With much volunteer labour from the Promontory community, the building was moved onto a basement, and essentials such as running water, a kitchen, washroom, and propane heat were added.
Renovations to the former Promontory Flats School were ultimately completed in 1974, with part of the project including a 1,008-square foot addition to the rear of the structure. This image, from January 1974, shows workmen well underway with the structure’s interior restoration. (Image Credit: Chilliwack Progress Archives)
On March 19, 1952, a number of Promontory women gathered and voted to form a local arm of the Women’s Institute. This national association had first been established in Ontario in 1897 with the goals of revitalizing rural communities and later encouraging women to become more involved in producing food during the First World War. The new Promontory Women’s Institute (PWI) needed a regular meeting place, and it identified the old PFS as suitable for its needs, and one year later, on March 11, 1953, School District #33 granted permission to the Institute for use of the old school house for its meetings and social events.
Image 8: On August 2, 1988, the old Promontory school house building obtained Voluntary Municipal Heritage Designation, 79 years after it was built. Such designation means the structure is subject to municipal heritage bylaws and is legally protected under the Local Government Act. PFS is currently one of 15 properties with this designation in Chilliwack. This image captures the Heritage Building plaque, presented by the City, that is mounted on the structure’s east-facing wall. (Image Credit: Hobby Hill Facebook Page)
During the following three years, the PWI became fondly attached to the PFS as its base of operations – so much so that on August 27, 1956, the group offered Township Council $500 to purchase the old school house structure. However, Council preferred to retain ownership of the PFS building, and instead granted the PWI a 20-year lease, as well as allowing them to spend the $500 on improvements to the building and the grounds.
Image 9: This 2019 image, facing northwest, shows the Promontory Flats School in its current setting, surrounded largely by residential development, along with some commercial space and roads – a far cry from the wilderness setting captured in Image #1 over a century ago. Identified to the upper left of the photo, 400 metres northwest of the PFS, is the previous location (1909-2008) of the house of George Thornton, the brother of Edward Thornton on whose donated land the PFS was constructed. The frame of reference of this image is somewhat similar to that of Image #1, but taken 109 years later, and from an elevated perspective. (Image Credit: Google Earth)
At that time, the PFS structure had no electricity or inside plumbing. A wood heater had been used to heat the building. As part of its improvement initiative, the PWI had electricity wired in and a sink installed. The PWI envisioned ultimately turning the old school property into a community centre and a park.
Image 10: This 2020 image captures the view from PFS’s front steps, facing north towards Chilliwack and the valley floor below. The perspective of this photo is similar to that of Image #4, but taken 89 years later. Note the enhanced panoramic views of the valley with less vegetation in the way. Also note that Teskey Way now travels directly in front of the old school house, a mere 17 metres from its front door (as opposed to no roads at all 110 years ago, as evident in Image #1). (Image Credit: History Perspectives Collection)
By 1971, with developers wanting to take advantage of the PFS’s spectacular views (see Images #4 and #10), and with Promontory in dire need of a functional community hall, it was decided that the old school house would undergo a significant upgrade, one that would ensure its structural integrity and usefulness for decades to come. The PWI, with the Township’s permission, launched a major renovation/restoration project, one of the goals of which was to maintain the PFS’s original design and floor plan.
Image 11: This 2020 image faces south towards the façade of the one-room Promontory Flats school house, elevated slightly on a ridge above Teskey Way. The perspective of this photo is somewhat similar to that of Image #3, but captured approximately a century later. (Image Credit: Chilliwack History Perspectives Collection)
With PWI spearheading the fundraising drive, and much volunteer labour from the Promontory community, a basement was constructed below the building, and essentials such as running water, a kitchen, washroom, and propane heat were added (see Image #7). In December 1973, the project was awarded a Local Initiatives Program grant from the federal government to enable its completion. The $7,515 grant was intended to supplement the wages of the seven workmen on the project.
Image 12: This 2020 image presents the upper portion of the PFS building’s façade, in particular capturing signage over the front entrance for the structure’s address (5650 Teskey Way) as well as for the Promontory Women’s Institute (PWI). Starting in 1953, and continuing until 1976, the PWI used the PFS structure as a base for its operations. The sign pictured in this photo was affixed over the building’s front door sometime after the PWI signed a 20-year lease in 1956. Over the years, the PFS building was also known as the Promontory Women’s Institute Hall. (Image Credit: Chilliwack History Perspectives Collection)
Renovations to the former Promontory Flats School were ultimately completed in 1974, with part of the project including a 1,008-square foot addition to the rear of the structure. A number of community social events at the PFS marked completion of the project and the rebirth of a cherished aspect of Promontory life, one that had been in peril just several years earlier.
Image 13: This 2020 image, facing southwest, captures the east-facing side of the PFS building (today occupied by the Hobby Hill Parent Participation Preschool). The perspective of this photo is similar to that of Image #6, but taken 46 years later. Although relatively small in this image, the Heritage Building plaque, presented by the City in 1988 (see Image #8), is visible on the structure’s east-facing wall. Also evident are some of the additions to the rear of the school house that have been put in place over the years. (Image Credit: Chilliwack History Perspectives Collection)
In 1976, at the conclusion of its initial 20-year lease of the Promontory Women’s Institute Hall (as the structure had come to be known over the years – see Image #12), the PWI negotiated a new ongoing lease with the Township. Under its lease agreement, the PWI would continue to be responsible for maintaining and managing the building. However, by that time the group had outgrown the space and it vacated the PFS. PWI subsequently leased the PFS building to the Hobby Hill Parent Participation Preschool, a new preschool that had been founded earlier in 1976.
Image 14: This 2019 aerial image show the PFS building’s location in the context of the greater Chilliwack area. Identified in the photo are the PFS, Five Corners, and Cultus Lake. The PFS structure is approximately 7.5 kilometres southeast of Five Corners. (Image Credit: Google Earth)
On August 2, 1988, PWI, as managers of the PFS, obtained Voluntary Municipal Heritage Designation for the old school house (see Image #8). Such designation means the structure is subject to municipal heritage bylaws and is legally protected under the Local Government Act. PFS is currently one of 15 properties with this designation in Chilliwack.
Image 15: This 2019 aerial image show the PFS building’s location in the context of the greater Chilliwack area. Identified in the photo are the PFS, Five Corners, and Cultus Lake. The PFS structure is approximately 7.5 kilometres southeast of Five Corners. (Image Credit: Google Earth)
Today, the historic Promontory Flats School building, surrounded by trees in a park-like setting at 5650 Teskey Way, continues to command a majestic view, looking out over Chilliwack and the valley floor as it has for more than a century. In fact, the structure still serves as a school of sorts, albeit of the preschool variety, with the Hobby Hill Parent Participation Preschool now in its 44th year as the building’s tenant. Over the years the PFS structure has undergone some additions, as well as internal and external improvements, but it still retains its charm as a classic one-room school house from an earlier era in Chilliwack’s history.