Reconstructing the Past

From October 1943 to October 1945, over 400 German prisoners of war (PoWs) were employed in a woodcutting operation in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park. Housed in a newly built camp on the shore of Whitewater Lake, the PoWs had better living conditions than the majority of civilians living around the park. When the buildings of the camp were removed in 1945 and 1946, the area was allowed to return to its natural state. For seventy years, nature has reclaimed the site, which is now a small prairie bordered by spruce. The history, however, has not been forgotten. Through the use of a 3D reconstruction such as this one, I hope to achieve a better understanding of how PoWs experienced internment at Riding Mountain while, at the same time, contributing to better public interpretation on and off the site.

The first step was to find appropriate sources that would allow me to build models of the buildings. Fortunately, through my research, I have found photographs of almost every building at the camp. However, no map of the camp has survived and it near impossible to determine the camp’s layout from the photographs alone. A solution came with a 1949 aerial photograph from which I could make out the foundations of the majority of the camp’s buildings. Combining the information obtained from these photographs with an architectural plan for a bunkhouse similar to those built at Riding Mountain, I could now start modelling.

Using Trimble’s SketchUp program, I started modelling the buildings whose dimensions I knew, or was fairly certain of. While the majority of the buildings at the camp were standard military installations and could be modelled from the information obtained from the architectural plans, I encountered problems when trying to model unique buildings, such as the garage, barn, and stables. This, however, was where SketchUp proved its worth. Using the Photomatch tool, I applied a single measurement to a photograph, which then allowed me to measure, with fair accuracy, the length of any other building in the photograph. With these dimensions, I could now finish modelling.

This 3D reconstruction, however, has to be taken as a representation rather than an exact replica of the camp. Due to source limitations, I was not able to model everything to the detail that I would have liked but instead had to improvise for cases in which no data exists. The building interiors were especially difficult for only one interior photo, of the recreation hall, is known to exist. While further research may uncover the interior layout of these buildings, I chose to leave these areas empty for the time. Another difficulty I encountered was that with a higher level of detail resulted in a significant decrease in the speed of both my computer and SketchUp. Therefore, to ensure that the final model was still accessible, I was unable to include the detail that I would have liked.

Despite it’s limitations, a 3D model such as this one can be extremely useful. By building this model, I am now able to learn much more about what life was like for German PoWs in Riding Mountain. Already, this model has also allowed me to correct some inaccuracies with my existing map, particularly in the designation of some of the buildings. By comparing the model of the camp to a copy of the “Nightwatchman’s Circuit,” listing the route taken by one of the guards each night, I changed the designation of three buildings and identified a previously-unknown fourth. More importantly, however, this model presents numerous opportunities for historical interpretation off and on the site. Whereas I have traditionally provided visitors with GPS units and printed handouts, a digital model expands my ability to help visitors understand the camp’s history. By uploading the model to IOS, using an app like SightSpace, visitors will be able to visualize and interact with the camp model while standing on the former camp’s location.

This model is only the beginning of reconstructing life at Riding Mountain. As more information becomes available (and as I port the model over to a faster computer), I hope to build a more complete and detailed representation of the camp. This will allow me to study the camp in ways previously unimaginable while contributing to a better understanding of what life was like for German prisoners of war in Riding Mountain National Park.

Published by Michael O'Hagan

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

2 thoughts on “Reconstructing the Past

  1. Michael: Amazing and awesome! This must represent hours of work — what great determination and patience you have to work with Sketch-Up program:)

  2. Well done Michael, I find the prisoner of war camp at Riding Mountain very interesting. Your work on the subject is amazing. It’s a passion of yours and it shows with hours of work dedicated.

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