Woster: Oh, how Chamberlain's changed

The part of the photograph that impresses me most is the image of the old school building; a three-story brick fortress built atop the hill where the current grade school sits.


A number of years ago, Nancy’s mom gave us a black-and-white photograph, an aerial picture of the city of Chamberlain.

I’m intrigued by the photo, partly for what I remember of Chamberlain in my schoolboy days, but as much for what I don’t recognize at all. Nancy’s mom wrote her name on the back of the picture, along with the cryptic description: “Chamberlain bridges, around 1935.’’ I wish I’d taken time to talk with her about the photograph. She’d have been able to bring to life some of the history captured in the image.

I have no idea who made the picture, taken over the river channel with most of the town in view. Visible on the left is the spot that’s currently a campground, recreation area and swimming beach. Two bridges in the foreground apparently inspired the note Nancy’s mom penciled on the back of the picture. A person would have had to have lived in town a long while to recognize those bridges.

The upstream bridge in the photograph is an old railroad bridge. It looks like it leaves the east shore about where American Creek flows today. It disappears from view in the photo just after it passes the river’s main channel. The track must have run along the American Creek valley. I don’t remember that track. I only remember the present railroad track’s location on the east edge of town. We flattened dimes and pennies on that track after school sometimes.

The other bridge in the photo is an old highway crossing. It looks to me like the bridge crossed the river three or four blocks north of where the highway bridge currently crosses, the one that goes from Chamberlain to Oacoma, not the interstate bridge. That was when Highway 16 still served as the main route through our part of the state. Unused piers still rise from the water where the bridge shown in the old photograph crossed the river. I lost a fourth-grade friend to swirling currents near those piers one summer.


In the 1950s, the existing Chamberlain-Oacoma bridge was constructed as part of the changes required for the Pick-Sloan dam-building project. My dad burned up yards of home-movie film as he documented the bridge-building. If we could find those reels of film, someone could spend long hours watching bridge spans being lifted into place, inch by inch. Editing wasn’t Dad’s thing.

The part of the photograph that impresses me most is the image of the old school building; a three-story brick fortress built atop the hill where the current grade school sits. In the photo, the school building is the only structure on the hill. It looks a bit like a castle, strategically situated on the high ground with an open view in every direction. The building is gone now. In its place is a playground for the school children. But generations of Chamberlain kids climbed the long, long flight of steps from the street to the top of the hill to receive their free public educations.

Grade-school kids went in the east door and fanned out into classrooms along both sides of the hall. It seems to me the junior-high students used that door, too, but I recall climbing the stairs to the classrooms for sixth, seventh and eighth grades. I might be mistaken, but that’s how I picture it in the old building. High school students, in recognition of their status, used the north door to reach a domain that younger students dared not enter.

Just inside that north door, a cramped closet-sized room held the mimeograph machine and typewriters for the CHS Hi-Life, the school newspaper. I got my first taste of actual newspapering there, thanks to Merle Adams, the journalism teacher. My senior yearbook says we never missed a deadline, a tribute to editors Bonnie Yates and Sharon Manley. Ron Ballou and I wrote sports stories and stayed out of the way.

The building is gone, but alumni remember it. For Nancy’s birthday one year, I posted a photo of her at about age 8, standing by the school building. At least 10 people commented, “Hey, I’d recognize those brick walls anywhere.’’

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