Geospatial Workshops in Atlantic Canadian History (GeoWATCH)

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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 Album
Island Imagined
GeoNOVA Portal
UNB Libraries Map and GIS

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.”

geotagged-earthworksThe session for about 45 people was held in the Van Horne Ballroom of the historic railway hotel, the Algonquin. Matthew Hatvany of Laval spoke about using GIS to test scientific arguments about the erosion of marshlands in the St. Lawrence, and then Josh introduced the basic concepts of GIS (vectors, rasters, base maps, etc.) Clustered around a handful of laptops, we then split into two groups: a small advanced group who worked with Donald LaFrenière of Western on some fire insurance maps, and a much larger beginner groups who followed along with Josh uncovering layers on a map of the peninsula supplied by the very helpful mapmakers at GeoNB.

A 1878 map of St. Andrews, part of the Atlas of the Maritime Provinces of the Dominion of Canada, was full of clues to the town’s environmental history, and became the centrepiece of the groundtruthing component. Six volunteers led walking tours to different parts of the town, from the Eastern Commons to the hotel golf course, from the salt marshes to the commercial waterfront. Smartphones allowed people to geotag photos as they went, as well as to check against uploaded map overlays using online map viewers (as well as the old-fashioned paper copies!)

e-commonsGeoWATCH 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.

Braving the worst rainstorm of the fall (over 60 mm in one day), about 30 participants came out to the Robertson on a Saturday morning. The day before the Institute for Island Studies had organized a half-day symposium on GIS-based research, from alternative energy supply to livestock health. At GeoWATCH, Claire talked about the “geographical information” already contained in historical maps, while Josh showed how GIS can measure the extent of coastal resources (like mussel mud in Malpeque Bay), and then walked us through the process of georeferencing a part of the map of downtown Charlottetown in the 1880 Illustrated Historical Atlas of the Province of Prince Edward Island, onto a base map pulled from the provincial online map library, using the open source software Quantum GIS.

At lunch at the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market we agreed groundtruthing in a torrential downpour was not ideal – so improvised plan B was a brilliant “virtual walking tour” led by famed Island historian Edward MacDonald, who led us (from within the comfort of the Gahan House) through the city, pointing out significant land use and landmarks on the 1880 map.

[A few days later, Hurricane Ophelia nearly prevented Josh from presenting GeoWATCH and Maritime HGIS work to the Geomatics Atlantic 2011 conference in St. John’s, but a 5:30 am drive over a stormy pass and several cancelled flights later, he made it].

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.

Karma offered us a stunning Indian Summer day for the last groundtruthing trip. About thirty of us headed to Grand Pré: first to the National Historic Site, itself a juxtaposition between the ornamental gardens laid out for tourists by the Dominion Atlantic Railway and the views of the patchwork of hay and corn fields of the working pré (the students filled their pockets from the heavily-laden apple trees); then onto dyke walls around Wolfville harbour and down into muddy layers of salt marsh; and finally out to the Planter “town that never happened,” the hollow grid of Hortonville, with its views of the eastern side of the Pré, the river channel carving out Boot Island, and the commemorative cross at the site of the deportation. The students happily geotagged all over the place, but also loved seeing the Pré – that they had only ever seen through the top-down perspective of maps or through images – in all its harvest glory.

As historians and teachers, we loved seeing them put together the story with the place.

Some GeoWatch web map examples:

Follow these links to see some early National Topographic Series maps prepared by Josh MacFadyen and hosted on the University of Toronto Map Library website courtesy of Marcel Fortin. The maps are overlaid on a Google web map. Viewers can adjust the transparency with the slider bar on the top right, view the historical map as an overlay on terrain or satellite images, or click “Earth” to switch into Google Earth mode and see 3D elevation and modern buildings (in Halifax and Dartmouth). Note: these historical images are large and will appear on the screen slowly, especially as you zoom into the Google map.


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!


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