By Norma Higgs
Niagara Gazette — Before we move on to Fifth Street School there is a little more we need to know about the “new” Third Street School.
Built in 1898 at 239 Third Street, the school sat just south of the former Lackey Plaza at the current location of the Seneca Niagara Hotel & Casino employee parking lot on the corner of Third and Rainbow Boulevard.
During construction, the topic of the day was the belfry for the old school bell. The neighbors and former students felt strongly about this and funding was finally procured and the bell was back in action. In addition, Miss Eunice Shaw was continued as the principal in the new building. The new two-story brink building held seven classrooms and later additions in 1927 and 1928 were included in the total cost of $105,289.41.
As Niagara Falls began to change, the Falls Street business area grew and many of the large homes nearby became tourist homes and rooming houses. Naturally the population changed along with the times and an elementary school was no longer needed as enrollment declined by 1962 and it became necessary to close the building. The last classes were held Feb. 1, 1962, when John Taddeo was principal. The Urban Renewal Agency purchased the building from the School District for $103,174 and it was demolished.
It was duly noted by Patricia Wilson Rice, whose book I am using for informational purposes, that the “two Third Street schools had served the neighborhood for over a hundred years.”
Fifth Street School was constructed in 1855 of native sandstone. Dominic told me it was probably the only all-stone school building in the city. Some of the stone was taken from the Niagara Gorge between Devil’s Hole and Lewiston. Located on the east side of Fifth Street, between Ferry and Walnut it was used continuously for 117 years and closed in 1972. During the school’s centennial anniversary in 1955, the children researched and wrote the history of this place of learning some of which is related below.
At a special meeting of the Board of Education on Feb. 1, 1854 it was resolved to erect another school building in the still “Village” of Niagara Falls. The sum of $7,500 was appropriated for the original three-story building. The builder, Ormal G. Johnson, was paid $634.38 for construction and cost overruns of $72.50 were added later. Elaine Timm told me that Mr. Johnson built both Third and Fifth Street schools and his house at 113 6th St. still stands. It was built in 1856, before the Civil War. It is now listed as a local historic landmark, thanks in part to her research.
Each floor had three large rooms with a recitation room in the rear. Like all other schools at that time, a woodshed was built across the back and the wood came from a nearby birch grove. Outdoor toilets prevailed and a bench with a pan and pail of water was used as a washroom. Candles provided light when needed and each room was heated by a stove. The first principal, J. W. Barker, was hired at a salary of $700.00 per year. Primary grades teacher Miss Balis was paid just over $16.00 per month.
As population grew in this area, there was a definite need for a larger building. In 1888, the Board of Education adopted a resolution to enlarge Fifth Street School. An addition was added utilizing most of the available school lot and had separate entrances, one for boys and one for girls at either end of the building. I recall the same situation existed at Twenty-Second Street School where I attended at one time. More on that one later. There were staircases to the upper floors at each end also.
The new school had four large rooms on each floor and students progressed from primary (first floor), to intermediate (second floor) and finally high school on the third floor. Is this where “upper classmen” originated? I will have to look that up one of these days. The small recitation rooms in the original school became cloak rooms. These large rooms accommodated about 50 students each and the nine furnaces of different ages and descriptions kept the janitor so busy, he often did not have time to ring the school bell.
In 1889, Fifth Street School also known as School No. 2 was changed to Niagara Falls Union School and in June of that year the first graduation was held. All “seven” graduates were young ladies. Lots of other “firsts” happened here: first high school or academic department was in 1885, first kindergarten in 1898, first electric lights in 1900, first junior high school in 1903 and first informal group in 1930. In the early 1900s the first Cadet Corps at Fifth Street School was formed and boys from the third, fourth, and fifth grades drilled and marched proudly in their khaki suits at all school functions.
When the school became outdated and enrollment declined, it was closed and demolished. The vacant lot was purchased by Robert and Charlotte Brezing in 2002 and in 2009 it was donated to the YWCA in Lockport. The property is directly behind Carolyn’s House, a 19-room apartment supportive housing program for homeless women and children operated by the YWCA and they are currently analyzing what they refer to as Carolyn’s House 2.0 for the site, which will build on the current services at Carolyn’s House for women and children.
Norma Higgs serves with the Niagara Beautification Commission and Niagara Falls Block Club Council.