School Cars: how trains brought classrooms to children in remote communities

They were known as school cars and schools on wheels. Trains that brought the classroom to children in the most isolated communities of Northern Ontario. Contributor Alisa Siegel explores remote education, homeschooling and nation-building.

For 40 years, Canada's trains brought schooling to children of railway workers, trappers, loggers and hunters

A black and white image of teacher Fred Sloman with his students, 9 children with the youngest at the front.
In 1926, the Ontario government launched an experiment, converting two railway cars into schools that departed from Toronto to isolated parts of Northern Ontario. Fred Sloman (left) was the first of two teachers in the program, shown here with his students outside School Car No. 1 in 1927. (CNR #4437/Archives of Ontario/OISE Library, University of Toronto)

*Originally published on January 9, 2023.

School trains.

They were also known as school cars and schools on wheels. 

The steam locomotives chugged and chuffed along the tracks of Northern Ontario, blowing their whistles and bringing schooling to children in isolated communities.  Children of railway workers, trappers, loggers and hunters. Children of the bush. 

Children who had no other way of accessing a physical school building.

It was a novel six-month experiment that lasted 40 years, from 1926 to 1967.

The program was an unprecedented collaboration between Ontario's then Ministry of Education and the railways: Canadian National and Canadian Pacific. It combined what we'd now call remote education, homeschooling and nation-building. 

Four decades of school cars

The first two trains left the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto on a warm September evening in 1926.

One train carried teacher Walter McNally, and headed for North Bay, Ont. The other carried Fred Sloman and his young family to Sudbury, Ont., and then further north to Foleyet and Capreol.

A sepia-toned picture of a teacher standing and 9 students sitting at their desks on a school train, looking into the camera.
Teacher W. H. McNally and his students aboard the C.P.R. School No. 1 in 1943 at Ramsey in Northern Ontario, an outpost on the Canadian Pacific Railway. (CPR/Archives of Ontario/OISE Library, University of Toronto)

Five more cars were eventually added to the program. The Ministry of Education sought teachers who had experience living in the remote north, and teaching in one-room schools. Some teachers lasted little more than a year. Others, including Sloman, would remain with their respective school cars for the better part of four decades. 

Sloman came to be known as the dean of the school car. He and his wife Cela raised their five children aboard the train, along with a number of pets, including two dogs and a skunk.

Some students just had to walk out of the house and cross the tracks to get to the school car. Others had to use skis, snowshoes, and dogsleds. The geography of Northern Ontario — relatively flat land, with what were then short, 11 km stretches between each railway section — made the program possible.

A black and white photograph of students at the back of a railway school train posing for the camera, holding snow shoes and skis. There is snow that is visible and icicles hanging from the train at the top.
Students stand with snowshoes and skis on the caboose of the C.N.R. school car at Capreol, Ont., in 1928. (CNR, Department of Interior/Library and Archives Canada/PA-043577)

Teaching one-on-one

The school trains stopped wherever there were children along the northern railway line. There could be as few as three or four students in a classroom, or as many as 15. 

Ray Bromley, a retired second-generation railway worker, recalls that the school car came to Palomar, Ont., just to teach him and his brother. Later on, when his sister was old enough, she joined, too.

Bromley said the tiny number of students meant "there was no slack time. The teacher, Mr. Sloman, would spend 15-20 minutes with one and then 15-20 minutes with the other." And then begin again.

A black and white image of a teacher in a suit standing over a boy sitting at a desk with a board and letter tiles.
Teacher Fred Sloman works with a student during class. 'Mr. Sloman taught us about life in the bush because we were in the bush... He’d teach us about the snow. He’d teach us about the weather. Anything to do with Northern Ontario," said Marcel Constantin, a former student of Sloman's. (CNR #33578/OISE Library, University of Toronto/Library and Archives Canada)

The school car stopped in each location and remained for the better part of a week.

For those five intensive days, Monday to Friday, students of the area attended class in person. At the end of the week, the teacher assigned homework for the following three to four weeks, to be done at home.

A train arrived and pulled the school car and teacher to the next stop along the 240 km route. A month later, the school car returned for another five-day session.

The teacher and their family lived aboard the school car, outfitted with living quarters — bedroom, kitchen and living room. The classroom, with its 12 to 15 desks in two rows, took up the remainder of the car.

Bob Bell grew up living and studying aboard the school car. His father was a teacher on the CPR line.

A woman cleans bunk beds as a man in a hat watches.
Teachers had their own quarters on the train that included three tiny rooms: a kitchen, a bathroom, and a central space that, depending on the hour, served as a sitting room, dining room or bedroom. (CNR School Car No. 1, #44575/Library and Archives Canada/OISE Library, University of Toronto)

"My sister and I had roll-away beds. They were kept at the back of the classroom and after everyone had gone, in the evening, we would bring these roll-away beds and set them down beside the students' desks. And that's where we slept." 

Water for drinking and cooking often had to be carried a great distance and was kept in pails. On Saturdays they would heat the water on a wood stove and use it to bathe.

"To me it was normal," said Bell. "Every week the train would come and pull us to another stop and my father would teach and I would go to school on the school car. There was no radio, nothing like that. We were too far away for radio. We did not get a paper. The National Geographic was a godsend because we were able to see pictures of the outside world." 

'Without electricity, the trains brought light'

Each school day began with the raising of the Union Jack — which hung prominently in the classroom and outside the car on a flagpole — and the singing of God Save the King and later, God Save the Queen.

"We had a lot of spelling bees. Spelling was very important," recalled Iona Peterson. 

Peterson is 93 years old. She attended Mr. Sloman's school car in Ruel, Ont., during the early 1930s. 

In this black and white image a teacher and son watch on as two students raise the Union Jack at the back of a school train.
Mr. Bell stands beside his son, Bob, as students raise the Union Jack at the back of the train to start the school day. (CPR #16948/Archives of Ontario/OISE Library, University of Toronto)

"We did arithmetic. I can remember doing science. Geography. And we did learn a lot about Canadian history. He would teach us stuff that we should know about living in the wild. A lot about nature and how things grow and different kinds of animals that we had in Ruel. That was all our life," said Peterson.

Life in the bush. The blanket of trees. The thick snow. The sounds of the trains. Ray Bromley can still hear it in his mind. And he remembers, too, the stories Sloman used to tell. 

"It was fantastic. All different types of stories about different people along the [railway] line and all the trapping experiences. It really got our attention."

The arrival of the school car in a community was reason to celebrate. As soon the train came into view, children raced to greet it.

Teacher Fred Sloman and a student work on a sign on the side of the school car. His wife Cela recalled that in the evening with access to very little light, 'everybody loved to see the school car with its lights coming.' (CNR #V-35299/Library and Archives Canada/OISE Library, University of Toronto)

The trains spelled new learning for the children, but they also brought medicine, baby supplies, and toys.

In the early days, in these remote areas without electricity, the trains brought light. And they brought social opportunities for the adults who were invited aboard the school car in the evenings to listen to radio, to watch movies, and learn English.

School cars not just for kids

The school car was born of the belief that everyone deserved to attend school, no matter where they lived. It was an idea that gained steam in the post-World War One period.

"The school train was much more than a school," writes Jocelyne Saucier in her school train-inspired novel, And Miles to Go Before I Sleep. 

"It was where they offered evening classes for adults: reading, writing — and on Canadian democratic institutions for immigrants."

This black and white image shows a gathering of women and children gathering together at an evening event on the school train.
In the evenings, there were community events like bingo nights and radio-listening sessions aboard the school car. (CNR #44575/Library and Archives Canada/OISE Library, University of Toronto)

Students of the school cars were a diverse group.

Some came from families with long roots in Northern Ontario, including many Indigenous students.

Others hailed from Quebec and elsewhere across the country. Many were new immigrants to Canada — from Finland, Scotland, Italy, Ukraine and Poland. Given the fear of communism, politicians of the day saw the school cars as a convenient and effective means with which to promote democratic ideals among newcomer students and their families.

Theodore (Ted) Christou, professor of Education History at Queen's University, quotes then Minister of Education, George S. Henry's pronouncement on the school car as a success story: "Bolshevik propaganda finds no place or acceptance wherever the school car operates. There's no doubt that the next generation will fall naturally into their place as loyal citizens."

Two railway workers and four children are in this black and white image. The adults are standing and children sitting on a handcar that was used to get them to their School Car.
In this photo, railway workers used a handcar to get children to the school train at Kukatush, an outpost on the Canadian National Railway. (CNR # 1/Library and Archives Canada/OISE Library, University of Toronto)

At their peak in the 1940s, as many as seven school trains travelled up and down the tracks of Northern Ontario.

By the 1960s, the number of students had dwindled. Roads had been built and students could now be bussed to regular schools each day in nearby towns. Families were moving to urban centres.

Christou added, "once novel, the school on wheels, these remarkable technological innovations, [now] seemed like relics from the past." 

In 1967, the school car program came to an end.

"I have a good feeling inside that I was able to experience the school car," said Peterson.

"I'm happy for that. When I see a picture of it, I just [have] a homey feeling, 'Oh yeah, that's home. That's my life.'

Eight students walk in the snow heading home after school on a train. The CPR train has icicles hanging from the top. This image is in Black and White.
Students homeward-bound after a day on a CP school car. (CPR #11099/Province of Ontario Picture Bureau/Archives of Ontario/OISE Library, University of Toronto)

Guests in this episode:

Bob Bell spent many years living and learning aboard the Canadian Pacific school car where his father was a teacher. When Bell's father died suddenly, his mother briefly took over teaching the students on the line. Bell soon became a teacher himself in a rural schoolhouse in Northern Ontario. He lives with his family in Barrie, Ont.

Ray Bromley was born in Foleyet, Ont., in 1946 and raised in Palomar, Ont. His father was a longtime supervisor for the Canadian National Railway. Bromley worked for INCO for 33 years, eventually as a supervisor on the railway and as a track maintenance coordinator in Sudbury and Port Colborne. He now lives in Levack, Ont.

Marcel Constantin was born and raised in Gogama, Ont., where he continues to live with his wife of more than 50 years. He worked for a small log wood mill for three decades. Constantin is an avid camper, fisherman and hunter. 

Theodore (Ted) Christou is professor of History Education at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. He is the incoming Dean, School of Graduate Studies at Ontario Tech University (January 2023). Christou is also the co-editor of Spirit of the Grassroots People (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2021) and the author of several books on education. He is also a published poet.

Iona Cooney Petersen was born in Ruel, Ont., in 1929. She was one of Fred Sloman's youngest students aboard Canadian National school car No. 1. Peterson worked for many years as a receptionist in an ophthalmologist's office and later for Sudbury's taxation centre. She now divides her time between her home on Manitoulin Island and Sudbury. Her greatest pride is her family. 

Jocelyne Saucier is the author of À train perdu (Les Editions XYZ, 2020), And Miles to Go Before I Sleep, translated by Rhonda Mullins (Coach House Books). Her novel, Il pleuvait des oiseaux (And the Birds Rained Down), has been translated into 20 languages. It was awarded the Prix des cinq continents de la Francophonie, making her the first Canadian to win the award. It was also shortlisted for Canada Reads 2015, and adapted for film.

Special thanks to:

Bonnie Sitter, author of On the Wright Track.
Benjamin Singleton and The University of South Carolina's Moving Image Research Collection for permission to use archival audio of Fred Sloman. 
Kate Zieman and Bob Rempel, CBC Library and Archives
Zoël Deschatelets, Fred Teolis, Dale Wilson
Northern Ontario Railroad Museum and Heritage Centre
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) Library and Archives
Canadian National Railway and Library and Archives Canada (CNR image collection)
Canadian Pacific Railway and Archives of Ontario (CPR image collection)
The late Karl Schuessler for his early work in helping to preserve the history of the school car.

Fred Sloman's school car has been transformed into the CNR School on Wheels Museum in Clinton, Ont.

*This episode was produced by Alisa Siegel.

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