Hidden treasures

New book explores long-forgotten jewels of Manitoba history


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In excerpts from his newly released book Abandoned Manitoba -- Residential Schools to Bank Vaults to Grain Elevators (Great Plains Publications), author and historian Gordon Goldsborough explains how the project took root and sheds light on a long-forgotten Second World War training site.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/10/2016 (2408 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In excerpts from his newly released book Abandoned Manitoba — Residential Schools to Bank Vaults to Grain Elevators (Great Plains Publications), author and historian Gordon Goldsborough explains how the project took root and sheds light on a long-forgotten Second World War training site.


The online service called Reddit is essentially a forum where people can share and discuss topics of mutual interest. Almost any subject, no matter how arcane, can be found on Reddit. One of its forums I peruse occasionally is called Abandoned Porn. No, it is not about what you may be thinking. In Abandoned Porn, you will finds thousands of photos, taken all over the world, of places and objects that are abandoned.

Houses, ships, aircraft and factories; they are all there. I am especially intrigued by photos taken inside shopping malls, those denizens of the 1970s that are fast disappearing. It is hard to describe why it is fascinating to see things that were once cherished in an advanced state of decay. But much as I enjoy looking at the photos on Reddit, I also find them frustrating because they almost never provide the backstory I crave. WHO created these things? WHEN did they thrive? WHY were they abandoned? WHAT does their abandonment tell us?

Abandoned Manitoba was recently launched. Goldsborough explores the rise and fall of sites around the province and how they fit into Manitoba's History.

To me, there is a lot to be learned from studying abandoned things. In my opinion, telling the story of these lost and discarded places imbues them with deeper meaning. For me, abandoned places tell us something interesting and informative about the past; what worked and what obviously didn’t. Hence this book. Here, we will visit places around Manitoba that, for one reason or another, no longer serve the function for which they once existed. We will hear their stories and, hopefully, delve more deeply into little-known and forgotten aspects of our province’s rich history.

For the past several years, I have been mapping historic sites all over Manitoba. The project started innocently enough. My wife, who at the time was working for an environmental consulting firm, was asked to investigate sites for potential wind-farm development in the vicinity of Deloraine. I had not visited that part of the province in some time, so I tagged along.

Given my long-standing interest in local history, I thought I could visit some interesting places in and around the town. I did some research in advance and learned there was an abandoned bank vault near to Deloraine. In 1883, it had been built by brothers A. P. Stuart and F. T. Stuart in the newly established village before the railway arrived in that part of the province.

Deloraine, which had been named for the Scottish hometown of its postmaster, consisted of a store, Land Titles office, grist mill, blacksmith shop, two churches, six agents of various kinds, a law office, a school and several houses. When the Canadian Pacific Railway arrived in 1886, it passed to the north of Deloraine. In late 1886, most buildings were moved to the new townsite three kilometres away. But the vault, being made of stones and therefore, very heavy, could not be moved, so it was abandoned, having served its function for a mere three years. Other buildings abandoned were the mill and town hall (used also as a school). In 1895, the site of what has come to be known as “Old Deloraine” was sold as farmland. The vault ended up in the middle of a livestock paddock. The farmer, recognizing its historical interest in showing what befell many Prairie towns founded before the arrival of the railway, built a fence around it to protect the structure from damage from his cattle. And there it sat for decades. In 1974, he carried out some restoration work to repair the mortar holding together its stones.

Wanting to see the bank vault at Old Deloraine, I asked about it at the front desk of our hotel. They had never heard of such a thing and advised me to check at the town office. In turn, the town’s office staff had vague recollections of the vault and sent me off in the general direction. After an hour or two of fruitless driving around the countryside, asking in vain for directions several times, I was ready to admit defeat. Making one last effort, I drove into the driveway of a nearby farm and knocked at the door of the farmhouse. Do you know where I can find an old bank vault, I asked the surprised farmer who answered, who no doubt wondered why someone was knocking in the middle of the afternoon. To my relief, he gestured towards the nearby barn and invited me to walk around behind it. And there it was! The structure measured about eight feet tall, perhaps 21/2 metres deep and 31/2 metres wide, made of fieldstones held together by mortar.

Goldsborough examines some of of the content at the museum at the now-closed Rapid City Museum.

There must be an easier way to do this, I thought, as I drove back to Deloraine. In this day and age, with the GPS becoming ubiquitous in so many aspects of our lives, with GPS mapping capability becoming commonplace in our cars and smartphones, it should be easy to find historic places in obscure locations. I was familiar with GPS equipment, having used it for years in my scientific work. At that time, Google Maps was newly available, making it easy for people to create and display all sorts of information on maps that were available widely and freely. All I needed to get going on this project was one final enticement.

My start came in the form of a challenge. The Manitoba Historical Society, for which I volunteer, had been given a grant to promote awareness of small, rural museums. Soon after the grant was received, the person who had spearheaded the application got a job outside the province and left the society holding the bag. Do the project, or give back the grant, we were warned. How do we go about fulfilling the terms of the grant, we wondered? I was reminded of my thoughts on mapping historic sites and proposed a customized Google Map showing the locations of the museums could be useful, especially if it also showed noteworthy places along the route to those museums. In that way, someone with a passion for local history could indulge in their interests as they travelled, stopping at noteworthy monuments, buildings, cemeteries and other places on the way to the destination. Initially, I thought perhaps there would be a few hundred of such sites on the map. But that’s when the obsessive aspect of my personality kicked in. Who was I to presume what someone might find interesting? Why not include a wide range of sites and give people the ability to selectively show only those matching their personal preferences? In that way, a museum trip could become a truly customized experience. That was my objective and the beginning of a project that continues today.

So far, my friends and I have mapped 6,200 sites around the province, with no end in sight. Thinking back to the bank vault that got me started, I can now report having found four other abandoned vaults, at Arden, Pilot Mound, Holmfield and Red Deer Lake. Many of the sites we have mapped are still in active use, although their historical nature may not be clear. For instance, innocuous buildings in many of our communities often conceal a fascinating past. Making more people aware of this past, so they can have a deeper appreciation of where we have been as a guide to where we are going, is my motivation. Sometimes, nothing conveys a story better than a site that is abandoned because it emphasizes in a very visceral way that change has occurred: at one time, the abandoned site was valued. Now it is not. That change in attitude is the basis for a story I want to tell here.

The elusive bank vault in 'Old Deloraine,' now a farmyard southeast of the town.

In this book, I present a small selection of the abandoned places I have visited over the past several years. But first, I should explain how I define the sorts of places we will be visiting. “Abandoned” is not quite the right word, but I am hard-pressed to come up with a better one. Essentially, my conception of “abandoned” is it is a place that no longer serves the function for which it was originally designed and which is underused. I do not mean to imply these places were abandoned through wilful malice. And not all of the places we will be visiting are completely unoccupied and decaying. A euphemism I often hear about old buildings is they are being used for “storage” but, in truth, most of them are filled with stuff that will never be removed. (In that sense, some might say my messy office is abandoned.) So I will embrace three criteria for sites to be profiled here:

1. The site should have some vestige of its former use. Quite often, when I visit the site of some former building, I find absolutely nothing left: no concrete rubble, no remnants of an access road, no commemorative monument. I will exclude such places here. I think it means something to be able to see authentic history, to walk in the hallway of an abandoned building, or to KNOW with certainty you are standing where someone else stood years ago.

2. The site must be special, either one-of-a-kind or a particularly good representative of a class of sites. For example, there were over 2,000 one-room schoolhouses that operated in Manitoba during the 20th century, and several hundred still stand today, in varying stages of disrepair. I will not be showing you all of them. Instead, I will pick one, or maybe two, really interesting ones and, if your curiosity is piqued, maybe you will be enticed to go out in search of others. I can help with directions.

3. The site must demonstrate something interesting or important about Manitoba history. For example, there are lots of vacant houses in rural Manitoba, and I am sure there is a sad story for each and every one. But unless someone noteworthy lived there, or there is something important the house shows us, or the building is in some way architecturally unique, I will not bore you with all those stories.

Goldsborough and his friends have mapped 6,200 sites around the province... so far.

I am challenged occasionally about the wisdom of promoting awareness of abandoned sites, on the grounds it may attract those with malicious intent or who may be injured while trespassing at a site with dubious structural integrity. I respond in two ways. First, everyone should act responsibly. For their part, owners of abandoned sites should be aware they are responsible under the law for ensuring there are no obvious hazards on their property that could harm trespassers. Putting up a “no trespassing” sign is a good start. But this does not put the onus solely on them. Those keen to see things on private property should obtain permission before making any attempt to enter. Trespassing is bad for everyone, especially those who may follow you. Otherwise, be content to view a site from afar, on public property such as roads and rights-of-way.

My second response to the naysayers is “security through obscurity” is never a good strategy. People are deluding themselves if they think not talking about a site makes it secure in this age of instantaneous, global communications. Sooner or later, if there is something interesting about a place, someone will find out and spread the word via places such as Reddit. Likewise, I think it is highly unlikely vandals will use this book as a basis for finding targets. If nothing else, vandals are lazy and will not drive for hours merely to cause wilful damage when there are easier, closer places to go. (In my experience, most vandalism is caused by locals, not visitors.) And to the potential treasure hunters, I say this: do not visit the places profiled in this book with expectations of booty. The “treasure” in these places is not that they are monetarily valuable — most are not — but that they tell us something important about Manitoba. In this spirit, I encourage you to go out and explore our beautiful province. Along the way, learn, share, respect, and, above all, enjoy the experience!

Paulson Bombing & Gunnery School

The former RCAF hangar near Chater was one of two relief facilities for the Service Flying Training School No. 12 in Brandon.

PAULSON, Man. — You would be hard-pressed to see them as you drove past this site on the south side of Highway 20, 11 kilometres east of Dauphin, but they are clearly visible from the air: clumps of trees that are curiously straight-edged and form a large, open triangle. This triangular forest, sitting in the midst of 640 acres of prime farmland, now invades the runways of a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) base what was once the largest of its kind in Canada for training pilots, observers and gunners. It is the former Paulson Bombing & Gunnery School.

From the earliest days of the Second World War, it was clear control of the skies would be essential for military victory on the ground. The federal government of William Lyon Mackenzie King saw an opportunity to support the war effort while keeping a large number of Canadians at home by hosting training facilities of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. At its height in 1943, the plan operated 107 schools and 184 ancillary facilities at 231 sites in nine provinces. Manitoba’s contribution included two Air Observers Schools (Winnipeg and Southport), the Central Navigation School at Rivers, a Wireless School (Winnipeg), Elementary Flying Training Schools (Neepawa, Portage, and Virden) and Service Flying Training Schools (Brandon, Carberry, Dauphin, Gimli and Souris). Specialized training in bombing and gunnery was provided near Macdonald, northwest of Portage la Prairie, and at Paulson.

The Paulson School was known officially as Bombing and Gunnery School No. 7, but its informal name came from the nearby Paulson siding on the Canadian National Railway. Located about 13 kilometres east of Service Flying Training School No. 10 south of Dauphin (now the Dauphin municipal airport), the site was chosen for its proximity to Lake Dauphin, just 11/2 km away to the northeast. The idea was novice aircrews could take off from Paulson and practise attacks on floating rafts in the lake while instructors on the shore would keep close watch on them.

The cracked concrete floors of the six large aircraft hangars are still visible.

Construction of the Paulson facility began in late 1940, and most buildings were completed by January 1941. Six large aircraft hangars and a drill hall were constructed by the Claydon Construction Company of Winnipeg. Other buildings at the site — most with green walls and brick-red roofs — included barracks and mess halls for officers and enlisted men and women (each group with separate space), a 10-bed hospital, dental clinic, garages and workshops, recreation and dance hall, fire station, and stores surrounding a large parade ground. Two large concrete tanks held water for drinking, cleaning and firefighting. A small sewage-treatment plant on the north edge of the base sat beside a 25-yard range where machine-guns aimed at a concrete wall, known as a “stop butt.” A railway spur line transported cargo and personnel to and from the site. The total cost of construction was about $1.25 million. The RCAF took command from civilian contractors in early June 1941, and the base reached full operational status later that month. Initially powered by diesel generators, electrical power lines from the Manitoba Power Commission arrived in early November. The base operated 24 hours a day with an operating staff of 150 to 200 people. The first classes began in late June 1941.

The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan brought thousands of men and women from all over the British Commonwealth — Canada as well as Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, plus a large number of Americans — to Manitoba. (Canadian women were not fully integrated into military units and instead served in a Women’s Division of the RCAF.) A man who enlisted in the RCAF spent three weeks learning basic drill procedures at one of three Manning Depots, including one at Brandon. Then, he spent four weeks at an Initial Training School where he learned military discipline, air force law and the theory of flight and mechanics.

Based on his aptitude, he was routed into one of three branches of service, as a pilot, observer or gunner and wireless (radio) operator. A prospective pilot went to one of the 27 Elementary Flying Training Schools across the country, many of them operated by civilian companies affiliated with flying clubs, where he spent seven weeks learning the basics of flying before heading to one of ten Service Flying Training Schools to receive a further 12 weeks of advanced flight instruction. Meanwhile, an observer went to one of 10 Air Observer Schools where he spent 12 weeks learning the nuances of air navigation, photography and reconnaissance, while wireless operators (who doubled as on-board gunners) received 18 weeks of training in the operation and care of communications equipment. Observers also spent four weeks of advanced training at Air Navigation School. The three branches reunited at one of 10 Bombing and Gunnery Schools across the country: pilots for two weeks, air observers for six weeks and air gunners for four weeks. After six months of training, they were ready for deployment.

Remnants of the Paulson Gunnery School include the range's 'stop butt' in the background and support columns from the aircraft hangars in the foreground.

The Paulson School operated into early 1945. As it became clear the war was drawing to a conclusion, numbers of staff at the base diminished. The final aircrews received their wings on Feb. 2, 1945, and the school closed a couple of weeks later. By April 1945, civilian employees were let go, and the remaining military personnel were transferred elsewhere. The skies that had droned with the roar of aircraft for nearly four years fell silent.

Eventually, all but one of the buildings at the Paulson Bombing and Gunnery School were sold and moved away or were demolished. It is rumoured a large quantity of small equipment, for which there was no further need, was simply buried in a hastily dug pit. The land, with its network of paved roads and runways still intact, was sold to a local farmer. When I visited the site in June 2015, the only remaining building was an officers’ mess, which had been moved from its original site to the farmer’s yard for use as storage space. Roads around the grounds were cracked and mostly overgrown with vegetation, so much so when the farmer gave me a tour, it seemed to me he was driving his truck across bumpy prairie. (The occasional manhole cover, sewer drain or fire hydrant did, however, give me pause.) The concrete floors of the six huge hangars and several of the smaller buildings were still readily visible, as was the sewage-treatment plant and the gunnery range’s stop butt. Plants had sprouted through cracks in the runways, growing into the triangular forest, and the land around the runways was mostly sown to agricultural crops. A site once devoted to swords has reverted to plowshares.

Today, some 70 years after the end of the Second World War, visible signs of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan training facilities are being slowly erased from Manitoba’s landscape. Runways at Carberry, Chater, Eden, Hartney, Macdonald, Oberon and Petrel have been removed or, like Paulson, are overgrown. Those at Dauphin, Gimli, Neepawa, Netley, Rivers, Souris, Southport, Virden and Winnipeg have been converted to civilian uses. Once numbering in the hundreds, and designed for short-term use during what was hoped would be a short war, few British Commonwealth Air Training Plan buildings survive. Well-preserved specimens form the basis of an excellent museum at Brandon. A remarkably intact hangar, now used to store farm equipment, stands at one of Brandon’s relief fields, northeast of Chater and a cluster of decaying barracks — used to film For The Moment, a 1993 Hollywood movie (starring a young Russell Crowe) about airmen training in rural Manitoba — remain at the decommissioned CFB Rivers. But a maintenance building from the former Carberry base I saw during a visit in mid-2015 was slated for demolition. So long as the inconspicuous remains of the Paulson Bombing and Gunnery School persist, the memory of Manitoba’s role in Second World War aviation will not be lost.

Goldsborough is a University of Manitoba aquatic ecologist and an active member of the  Manitoba Historical Society. He published two previous books and hosts a weekly radio series on CBC called Abandoned Manitoba

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