Railway School Cars

When a person mentions trains the first thoughts that come to mind is moving passenger and freight from point a to point b.  Who knew that they also provided education to remote northern communities up until the mid-1960s?  In fact many northern Canadian residents attended school cars operated by either Canadian Pacific Railway or Canadian National Railway from 1928 to 1967.


In the northern regions of the prairies, Ontario, Quebec, and in Newfoundland, school-aged children were having trouble getting education unlike their counterparts in the southern regions who had better access to schools.  Government officials from the provinces got together to come up with a ‘school car’ concept which would allow the schools to move to the different remote communities and having the right teacher who was motivated to run the school, would then be a great benefit to these children.  The railway companies were approached both were enthusiastic to give back to the communities they served.


The school car would be pulled by a locomotive to a siding where it remained for about a week (and sometimes two weeks).  The school car contained around 12 desks, a stove, two blackboards, pull-down maps, a globe, first aid cabinet, two bookcases, and a teacher’s desk & chair.  During this time all the school-aged children in the area would be taught by a teacher (who’s family accompanied him or her) and lived in a self-contained compartment beside the classroom.  This compartment contained a living space, bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom areas.  The entire car was heated by radiant heat pipes that were controlled in the living compartment.   Students either walked, snow-shoed, skied, rode a horse, or came by canoe to these school cars.  One story tells of two young boys aged 9 and 11 who traveled 20 miles to the school car and then camped out beside it for the time it stayed at a particular community.  It was said the temperatures some nights dropped down to – 40 degrees Celsius!


After the school period was over, the locomotive would return and move the school car to the next community on the line.  The school children would continue doing their homework until the school car returned to their community approx. 4 to 6 weeks later!  The curriculum would be exactly the same as the students in the southern regions – the only difference was the school went to the children!  Children were not the only ones who received the three R’s, in many instances the school car was used to educate the adults after hours.  The adults would gather in the car and participate in a variety of activities (from reading books, having a communal meal, playing bingo, or take classes) – all organized by the school teachers.  Sometimes the teachers were called upon to provide basic medical aid to the local residents, or to assist in writing letters, or ordering items from the catalogs for the ones who couldn’t read or write.


The Great Canadian Plains Railway Society thought it would be a neat idea to re-introduce this idea to local school-children on both teaching them about the history of the railway, and also how students in the northern regions of Canada went to school!  With the donation of vintage CPR railway cars in 2011, this idea became closer to reality.  The candidate car was Baggage-Express #4725 / 411692, being built by the Canadian Car and Foundry in Montreal, Quebec in November 1952.  #4725 served on the ‘Dominion’ and ‘Expo Limited’ routes until being removed from passenger service in December 1967. CPR then modified it to be used on Maintenance of Way (MOW) service as a mechanical sleeper (a place where work crews slept) from that point forward until it was ‘retired’ in the early 1990s. It then sat in storage at Ogden yards in Calgary where it suffered from vandalism and a fire that severely torched the interior of the car and the portion of the exterior by the one entrance. Thousands of man hours of volunteer work in cleaning and restoring went back into the car, with the help of the Lethbridge Correctional Centre work crew, and dedicated Society members.  One of our Society members, a retired school teacher, has offered to help in setting up educational programming that would take place in this restored railway car!  We hope to start offering this unique experience next spring, so if you have a school class that would be interested in using this, please contact us.


If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us at gcprs@telus.net.   Be sure to have the Blog title in the subject line.


All images and content are copyright Great Canadian Plains Railway Society / Galt Historic Railway Park and/or Jason Paul Sailer unless otherwise noted. Do not use without permission.


Marian Hillen posing with the nearly completed 1952 school car exhibit on May 24th, 2015 – Bill Hillen Photo








Having a lesson in a Railway School Car – 1950s – Canada Science and Technology Museum’s website/Image # CN000719










Aboriginal, Finnish, Norwegian, French and British children inside a school train at Nemigos, near Chapleau, Ontario, around 1950. Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board of Canada/Photothèque collection/PA-111570













From 1936 to 1942, the Newfoundland government, the Newfoundland Railway, and the Anglo-Newfoundland company supplied a school car for the benefit of families along the railway lines. Spruce Brook (pictured) was one of the larger communities served. Photo taken in 1937 – Frank M. Moore Collection











Canadian National Railways School on wheels No. 1 (Library and Archives Canada)










Photo inside a railway school car in Northern Ontario from August 1932. Natural Geographic Photo (http://fromthehandsofquacks.com/2015/02/02/the-school-on-wheels/)











Pupils on board the ‘School On Wheels’ on the CN Railway car between Capreol and Foleyet in remote northern Ontario, where communities have too few children to justify building a school in 1955. Credit: Berni Schoenfield










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