By Norma Higgs
Niagara Gazette — Ding dong — school bells ring — not to worry kids, it’s not for you (yet). It’s for me. I am back to my self-imposed assignment writing about city landmarks and the first part is about city schools. I touched on Hyde Park Elementary School a bit in the piece about” my own school years” as I was a student there for a short time.
Hyde Park School sits between Michigan and Linwood avenues at 1670 Hyde Park Boulevard. Built in 1928 as a three-story brick building with 25 classrooms, it was open for business in September of 1929. Simon and Russell Larke were the architects. Later in 1957, four classrooms and a gymnasium and auditorium were added bringing the total costs involved to $279,991.45.
According to my main source of information, Patricia Wilson Rice, this building “possesses several unique and unusual features.” She noted that beautiful sculptured animals are placed along the banister in each stairwell. “They are not only decorative, but serve to discourage sliding down the banisters.” I doubt that thought ever entered my mind during my time there. These animal sculptures and other sculpture designs are the works of Mrs. John Pierce Lange, a foremost sculptress in the history of Niagara Falls.
Other interesting features she mentioned were the beautiful tiles around the drinking fountains that were hand-painted in Spain. The school’s main entrance boasts ornamental border designs and a Mr. Ruben, described as an expert in brick design, used a special method in completing the exterior brickwork on this building. The first principal was Miss Gertrude M. Kurth. The current principal is Ms. S. Smith and the school is known as Hyde Park Elementary school.
In 1958, just after the gymnasium was completed, a tank car exploded at the nearby Niagara Junction Railway shaking the entire building. Guess it was fate that the gymnasium was recently completed as most of the younger students were there attending a function which was the safest place in the building.
Further south at 910 Hyde Park Boulevard is the Charles B. Gaskill Junior High School now known as Gaskill Preparatory School. It was originally named after Charles B. Gaskill another noted contributor to our local history. Born in Wilson on Nov. 28, 1841, he enlisted as a private in the Civil War in 1861. Within a short time he was promoted to 2nd lieutenant and by the end of the year he was transferred to Company K and sent to the battlefield. The following year he was seriously wounded at Gaines Mills, Va., and taken prisoner. His wounds were not treated properly and he was sent to a hospital in Baltimore for treatment following a prisoner exchange. He remained out of the service for nine months but later became a captain in the 78th United State Colored Troops and soon was promoted to major in the 81st U.S. Colored Infantry where he remained until he resigned is commission in December of 1865.
At the end of the Civil War he married Helen I. Sherwood of Niagara Falls and they briefly settled on a plantation in Mississippi. He re-entered the Army, becoming the commandant at Jackson Barracks in New Orleans and followed this stint at Fort Mason, N.C., as assistant adjutant general during the reconstruction period.
Charles and Helen, now with three daughters, returned to Niagara Falls where he been engaged as an active businessman building the first industries that utilized water from the hydraulic canal. Known as the Cataract City Milling Company and later the Pettebone Paper Company, they were both sold to the Niagara Falls Power Company and discontinued to make better use of the water power. He became actively involved in the Niagara Falls Power Company seeking funding to assure the future of this enterprise. Gaskill and others took over the former horse rail line and converted it into an electric railroad, known as the Niagara Falls and Suspension Bridge Railway Company where he served as president. He also served as president of the Village of Suspension Bridge during 1888 establishing strict law and order. When Niagara Falls became a city he was appointed to the board of education serving for a number of years. It was his proposal that initiated a teacher pension system.
Called into action to serve his country again he served under General Nelson A. Miles in Puerto Rico which culminated in the formal transfer of the island to the U.S. in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War. He spent considerable sums of his own resources in his industrial ventures and in the aftermath of the panic of 1893 he lost practically all he had accumulated. He suffered from ill health and a paralytic stroke but his spirits and mental faculties remained intact until his death at age 78 on October 8, 1919, in Memorial Hospital and is interred at Oakwood Cemetery with other historically regarded former citizens.
It was not difficult for the board of education to name this new junior high school in his honor. Opened in 1931 it was necessary to accommodate overcrowded conditions at existing facilities. A four-story brick building with 61 classrooms, an auditorium, gym and pool cost $905,046.29 with an additional $50,000 investment in new stairwells in 1970. The first principal was James H. Erwin who went on to become deputy superintendent of schools in 1945. Robert L. Bradley Jr. is the current principal.Norma Higgs serves with the Niagara Beautification Commission and Niagara Falls Block Club Council.