Lasting Effects: PoWs in Riding Mountain National Park

The following video is the result of a digital history assignment that I’m currently taken. The assignment tasked us with using digital methods to examine a significant or interesting landscape and naturally I chose the site of the Riding Mountain Park Labour Project in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park. For those not familiar with it, this project employed 440 German PoWs in a woodcutting operation from 1943 to 1945 in an effort to prevent a predicted fuelwood shortage.

My first task was to find the sources. While I have a fairly sizeable collection of textual records relating to the camp’s history, maps and other spatial information are, for the most part, missing. Instead, I turned to aerial photographs to fill in my record gaps. Little did I realize how much I could learn from them!

With the assistance of the National Air Photo Library, the Manitoba Land Initiative, and a staff member at Riding Mountain National Park, I was able to assemble a range of coverage from 1931 to 2009. The next step was to import them into a GIS program and georeference them.

With the photos georeferenced, I was now able to add information from my records. As a map of the camp’s layout has not survived, my first step was to create an outline showing the buildings’ shapes and locations. Fortunately the building’s footprints, with some exceptions, were still fairly clear, even in my photographs from the 1970s.

The next major step was to look at landscape change. Like a map of the camp, a map showing the location of the woodcutting area has also not survived. Using aerial photographs from the 1940s and 1950s, I was able to plot the extent of the woodcutting operation, which, as I discovered to my surprise, was almost entirely confined to the northern shore of Whitewater Lake. By comparing these photographs with modern ortho-imagery, the regrowth of the spruce population is quite remarkable. The Parks Bureau specifically instructed that the PoWs leave spruce trees standing in hopes of regeneration. As you can see from the video, the spruce population has [spoiler alert!] done exactly that!

Anyways, I’ve talked enough so on to the video. While this isn’t going to win any Oscars and I am certainly not Morgan Freeman, I hope that this video demonstrates how GIS and other historical methods can be applied to studying history.


Thank you to all of the individuals who helped, especially Josh MacFadyen, who put up with all of my constant questions!

One last thing; if you are interested in learning more, Josh and I will be delivering talks on Historical GIS for GIS day on November 20. For more information, please click here.

Published by Michael O'Hagan

Historian studying German Prisoners of War in Canada during the Second World War

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