GeoWatch Recap

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Claire Campbell and Joshua Macfadyen


For historians of Eastern Canada, maps are some of our most fascinating, and most valuable, records of environmental change: drawn by French explorers, British naval engineers, and Canadian surveyors; drawn for colonization, war, or infrastructure; drawn of coastlines and ports, forest tracts and towns. Historical GIS (Geographical Information Systems) lets us overlay historical maps on top of street or topographic maps, to identify ways in which places – from town grids to coastlines – have changed over time. Then by walking the landscape to look for physical remains, we can “groundtruth” the cartographic record. In a sense, we’re able to envision and then revisit past landscapes.

But for many of us, the technological reputation of GIS (Geographical Information Systems) remains more than a little intimidating. (“Damn it, Josh, I’m a doctor, not a software expert!”)

So in the summer and fall of 2011, GeoWATCH offered three workshops to students, faculty, and interested public: at the CHESS summer school at St. Andrews by the Sea, UPEI in Charlottetown, and Dalhousie at Halifax /Grand Pré. Each included an introductory discussion of mapping literacy, the place of GIS and the content in historical records like maps and aerial photographs. Then there was a longer session focused on georeferencing: aligning historical maps with real world coordinates and contemporary base maps.

Despite the assorted challenges, from technological (from no wireless to corrupted files) to meteorological (from peasoup fog to a hurricane), we introduced historical GIS – and wonderful historic places – to new audiences in all three Maritime provinces.

GeoWATCH I: St. Andrews by the Sea, 29 May 2011

Founded for Loyalists from Maine in 1784, St. Andrews was a “model town,” designed on a standard grid plan (like other communities in the region, including Charlottetown and Halifax) to display the settlement’s loyalty to the Empire and ordered rule. By 1878, railway spurs and machinery shops had invaded the eastern edge of the peninsula, while a handful of new hotels heralded its discovery by generations of American and Montreal summering well-to-do seeking “the salubrious air,” renaming the town “by the Sea.”


GeoWATCH II: Charlottetown, 1 October 2011

NiCHE veterans of Time and a Place will recall that Prince Edward Island is a wonderful site to explore environmental history. Thanks to the efforts of the Robertson Library at UPEI, including map librarian Donald Moses, hundreds of maps have been digitalized as The Island Imagined project. GeoWATCH II was about looking for change in the provincial capital: from the 1768 town plan to the industrial waterfront and estate development of the Victorian era; the migration of the commercial and political centre, the draining and filling of wetlands and waterfronts, the parcelling of the Commons.

GeoWATCH III: Halifax and Grand Pré, 12-15 October 2011.

After two planned towns, GeoWATCH III focused on a vernacular rural area: the small community of Grand Pré on the Minas Basin. Grand Pré (nominated for status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site) was originally a salt-marsh, dyked and drained in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by Acadians before the deportation of 1755. Reoccupied by New England Planters from the 1760s, it remains a rich agricultural area, with the original framing of the Acadian drainage system and properties between Long Island and the mainland uplands still visible.

GeoWATCH III was taught in two sessions, using ArcGIS to layer on contemporary topographic maps a 1911 Geological Survey of Canada map of Hants County and a 1912 forest inventory made for the Commission of Conservation. The change in the salt marsh (especially the erosion of Boot Island, which originally had been dyked into the main pré) was striking.


The two eastern regional networks in NiCHE – Quelques Arpents de Neige, for central Canada, and HEAR, for Atlantic Canada – have between them run several GIS and spatially-oriented events through NiCHE. At the Arpents meeting in December, representatives from these projects and the two regional groups are meeting to talk about the future: the place of HGIS (and the results of these projects) in the study of environmental history, and the scope and potential of the regional networks themselves.

Kudos especially to Josh MacFadyen, who spent countless hours retrieving and georeferencing numerous historic maps for three very different places!

For a more complete discription of the three events, vist the GeoWatch event page.

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Professor of History at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where I revel in Canadiana and environmental history. Also a lover of exploring, maps, Jane of Lantern Hill, and Scandinavia.

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