Upper Canada’s maker spaces: Modeling the rural mill complex

Depending on whether you believe the image in the famous Çatalhöyük map is a mountain range or a stretched leopard skin, people have apparently been able to understand the concept of the aerial view since at least the early neolithic period. We have a fascination with understanding our worlds from above, and even children are able to conceptualize their environments in this way. Who hasn’t seen a historical landscape or bird’s eye view painting and imagined “flying” through the image to see other aspects of the city or landscape?

Panoramic views, or bird’s eye maps, were created mainly for art and boosterism and less for accurate measurements or navigation. In this way they seem to draw us in to the details on every street, inviting us to explore the map and testing our familiarity with the space. Recent digital techniques such as rephotography/HistoryPin, 3D models/printers, and historical geographical information systems (GIS) have become increasingly popular ways to explore and recreate historical environments. There is a lot of overlap between these digital history methods, and all rely on maps, models, and photos. Often a blend of techniques can work together, and in this post I discuss the creation of a sort of 3D-GIS-aerial-(re)photo project. Sometimes acronyms fail…

Several ages ago I used Google SketchUp to create accurate 3D models from a small-town Ontario Fire Insurance Plan (FIP). It was part of a talk I gave on 19th century flax production, an all but forgotten part of the Southern Ontario landscape that once defined the intersection between urban and rural spaces in many small towns. A lot of ink has been spilled explaining the history of urban industry and rural agriculture, but often the suburban and small-town intersections between these two poles of production are overlooked. Located just off the edge of most maps — home to pollution, poverty, and eventually sprawl — the urban peripheries were also central places, connecting the city and the country, encouraging mobility, and providing a place for one of Canada’s fir`st maker cultures.

Tavistock Fire Insurance Plan and SketchUp model

Tavistock Fire Insurance Plan and SketchUp model

Restoring the mills in 3D helped show how these agri-industrial buildings dominated the “skyline” of towns like Tavistock and brought dozens or even hundreds of labourers to the edge of the town and the flax fields that surrounded it. Now that I’m teaching in London I wanted to do something similar with a local mill as a demonstration for my students.*

I knew there was also a major flax mill in St. Thomas, and that it was built in 1864 in to take advantage of the seemingly unquenchable thirst for fibre in the 19th century. Although I had a few tantalizing pages from the first miller’s account books, I knew very little about the actual mill, including important things like its location! With the help of Theresa Regnier at Western’s Archives (ARCC), I found a stunning photograph of the mill that dated to the mid 1860s — very early for the industry and for landscape photography in general.

The photo shows a burst of activity, suggesting it was taken during the late Civil War period when flax was in highest demand in US textile plants. Several teams of wagons are delivering fibre, gangs of handlers are at work on the grounds, and at least six enormous stacks of flax are stored around the mill. To my knowledge, this is the only historical image that exists of these barn-size stacks of valuable fibre. In the far distance, workers climb the stacks forming peaks and preparing the structures to shed rain like a building. As labour and equipment became available through the winter the flax would be hauled into the mill for processing.

Perine-Young Flax Mill, St Thomas Cameron H-9. courtesy of Elgin County Archives

Perine-Young Flax Mill, St Thomas Cameron H-9. courtesy of Elgin County Archives

The Kettle Creek landscape itself is also saturated with derivative agri-industrial activities in this photo. The creek is dammed and water is coursing into the mill’s engine house, a bridge and road connect both town and country to the mill, and most of the landscape has been cleared and fenced for flax and other crops. Just prior to harvest these hills would have been awash in blue from the plant’s distinctive flowers. A variety of small buildings existed around the mill, and although the mill, dam and

Flax flower. Source: <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flax">Wikipedia

Flax flower. Source: Wikipedia

bridge are now gone it looks like some of the small houses and outbuildings might still exist in the area of St. George street today. Fire Insurance Plans would have confirmed this in a GIS, but unfortunately, the mill’s location in Kettle Creek was just outside of the area covered by these plans and other historical maps. Likewise, a drive through the St George street neighbourhood of St. Thomas today shows no traces of this 19th-century landscape. This is where the bird’s eye views are so useful.

When I went to the Elgin Archives in St. Thomas I saw some of the excellent bird’s eye view panoramas of St Thomas (eg. the earliest map by H. Brosius, 1875), and I noticed some curious features about the Kettle Creek valley and the flax mill. Most importantly, the panoramas captured parts of the landscape that the FIPs missed, including all of the valley, and the large flax-stacks were regular enough elements of the landscape that they were recorded along with other forms of “built” infrastructure. Thanks to the help of Steve Peters, I learned that the St George street neighbourhood was then referred to as “Bone Town,” because of a slaughterhouse perched on the banks of the creek just upstream from the city’s waterworks. Perhaps because of this association, the valley has been home to some of the city’s poor, including African-Canadians such as the escaped slave, Nathan Ryan, and his descendants.

H. Brosius, “St. Thomas,” (Madison: J. J. Stoner, 1875)

H. Brosius, “St. Thomas,” (Madison: J. J. Stoner, 1875)

In 1864, the Perine Brothers of Waterloo County partnered with Rev Alex Young of St Thomas and built a large dam and water powered mill on the creek. One newspaper editor marveled at the steady stream of activity at the mill site, and noted that he had never considered this upper part of the creek as a potential mill seat. The valley immediately proved an ideal location for milling — and growing — flax. Water power was important in the 1860s, but so were ready access to mill and field labour, nearby farms, and railway connections to consumers in the US and other parts of Ontario.

There is no visual record of the valley before this industrial transformation, because by the time of the 1865 mill photo and earliest bird’s eye views the creek was dammed and the upper part of the valley flooded. In 1867 the town hosted a boat

Detail: H. Brosius, “St. Thomas,” (Madison: J. J. Stoner, 1875)

Detail: H. Brosius, “St. Thomas,” (Madison: J. J. Stoner, 1875)

club in this area, and the 1875 Brosius panorama shows a rower on the mill pond. In the 1890s this site of industry, poverty, and pollution was gentrified, the mill pond was filled in, and the city’s “Athletic Park” was built on the site. The artificial pond was redundant by then anyway, since the flax mill was running on reduced hours and had switched to steam power.

The Kettle Creek project raised the question: how do you model a landscape that has essentially disappeared? Many historical geographers reconstruct past places by starting with what we know in the present and working backwards from there. One common technique is to use GIS to georeference and layer historical maps and Fire Insurance Plans, starting with the most recent and working back to the oldest. Since the FIPs did not cover the area I was interested in, I would usually then turn to historical aerial photographs. Here, too we are out of luck, because the earliest photos of the valley show only the well-established Athletic Park and growing suburbs. However, the Elgin Archives contain a wealth of earlier landscape photos of the valley, taken between 1865 and 1905, that show the transformation and the dynamic fluvial geomorphology of Kettle Creek.

A recent photo of Athletic Park and the towering Wabash (originally Great Western) railway bridge seems to suggest that the park and bridge were always there, built on the forest floor and stretched out above its Carolinian canopy. However, a digital recreation of the landscape proves this place had many other lives and highly disturbed ecosystems. Rephotography, or comparing multiple views taken from approximately the same site, suggests that the bridge was rebuilt at least once, but like most railway infrastructure it was one of the more permanent features in this part of the valley. Thus, as I’ve also argued in the East-coast context, built infrastructure often act as a historical datum, and the photographic time series of the Wabash bridge provides reference points to track the movement of water, land, and forest that rose and fell beneath it.

The time series shows that the tall riparian hardwoods encircling Athletic Park in 2013 are relatively new residents. In 1905 the park contained only scattered trees, and almost entirely on the uplands. A view from St. George street in 1890 shows why; this land was a flood plain with no sign of trees, a park, or much land at all. Over a quarter century of flooding and stream diversion has created enough of a flood plain deposit on the creek’s meander to support vegetation. This too was new, and a view from the same location about fifteen years earlier shows the valley shortly after the flax mill dam was constructed. The detritus between the water and the high ground suggest that this land had been recently flooded. Remnants of clearing, logging, wooden trestle building, and possibly even boating-gone-wrong are scattered across the ground where the mill pond subsided. A farmer and two horses plow the rich alluvium and a snake-rail fence stands sentry against livestock, predating the wire fencing visible in the 1890s.

So why do this in 3D? I tried modeling the Kettle Creek landscape in Trimble’s “SketchUp Make“, a free 3D modeling program made popular when it was owned by Google. Google still supports the software and allows models to be geolocated in real world coordinates and scales using Google Earth. Unfortunately, Google’s stock satellite imagery for this landscape was not very appealing at the time of writing, and it did nothing to answer some of the questions about the early industry and geography of the valley.

I used a technique in SketchUp that allows ordinary aerial photographs to intersect with the modern terrain and imagery. I then created a new layer for each version of the imagery (1945, 1960, and today). This allows the viewer to activate different layers and see how the landscape had changed over time, much like historical GIS. Programs like ArcScene allow users to do this 3D texturing in a GIS, but taking the project a step further and creating a series of 3D models is much easier (and free) in software like SketchUp.


Screenshot of "draping" historical aerial photographs on 3D landscape and creating new layers for each year in SketchUp

Screenshot of “draping” historical aerial photographs on 3D landscape and creating new layers for each year in SketchUp


Once historical landscapes have been created from air photos and modern topography in SketchUp they may then be modified to reflect significant changes in the land. For instance, in this project the land upstream from the mill on St. George

3D model and 2D re-photograph of the Kettle Creek mill pond (now Athletic Park, between St. George street and the Wabash railway bridge) in St. Thomas

3D model and 2D re-photograph of the Kettle Creek mill pond (now Athletic Park, between St. George street and the Wabash railway bridge) in St. Thomas

street was flooded many times between 1864 and the end of the century when the mill was abandoned and Athletic Park created. As the time series above demonstrates, the Wabash (Great Western) railway bridge was a relatively constant fixture after 1872, but the land, water, and trees below were anything but. Using the “Sandbox” tools in SketchUp we can select the regions of Athletic Park that were once underwater and extrude them downward so they can be covered with a semi-transparent “water” layer. Obviously this is an imprecise example. Depending on the season and the year-to-year activity in the mill and other parts of “Bone Town,” the water level and sedimentation would have fluctuated significantly.

Finally, the SketchUp “match photo” tool is a powerful way to place new models into the landscape based only on 2D photos and a single measurement. This tool works best for buildings that have been photographed from a side angle with few visual obstructions. A newspaper report revealed that the two main sections of the mill barn were each 48′ long. The “match photo” tool allows us to set the axis and adjust the angles of the model so that any geometry drawn from that location would be to scale. The buildings and materials in the background may also be drawn into the model with relative accuracy, even though they are not recorded on any map.

Screenshot of using historical photographs and the SketchUp "photo match" tool to create accurate 3D models of disappeared historical sites.

Screenshot of using historical photographs and the SketchUp “match photo” tool to create accurate 3D models of disappeared historical sites.

The end result of working with these tools is the ability to explore and display a set of historical aerial photos and landscapes including a model of a 150-year old (and vanished) mill complex and an estimation of the effect these activities had on the surrounding environment.

Although this neighbourhood was far from banks, churches, and other central institutions, I think it was one of the most geographically dynamic and historically interesting places in St. Thomas. With its many bridges and railways, historians have considered the valley as merely something to be crossed on the way to London and other Southern Ontario markets. Competing railway companies raced to be the first to bridge the valley in the 1870s and now three remarkable trestle bridges are landmarks in the urban environment. The massive railway bridges are closed, and St Thomas is planning to convert one into an elevated park. The valley is now known more for its trestle bridges and “Athletic Park” than its history as “Bone Town” and site of mill complexes and flax-stacks, but projects like this one show the centrality and mutability of these spaces for Upper Canada’s “maker cultures.”

All archival photos are used Courtesy of Elgin County Archives and the Western Libraries’ Map and Data Centre
Many thanks to Steve Peters, Gina Coady, Christine Homuth, and Teresa Regnier for their help finding sources for this project.
*Recently the students in History 9808 – Digital History have been working on some exciting place-based histories as part of the Public History and regular graduate programs at Western. In the first assignment they created either a “Digital Doors Open” or “Digital Landscape” project, and many of them are now modeling those buildings or landscapes in 3D for their second assignment. I’m going out on a limb here by publishing a post on the same topic and at the same time as my students’ assignments. Some of them will no doubt eclipse my samples shown here with their own work. That’s OK!


3 thoughts on “Upper Canada’s maker spaces: Modeling the rural mill complex

  1. I must be getting old, and to see a historical project such as this warms my heart. I moved to St.Thomas last year from Lachine Quebec, a town where history has been buried under industrial land fill and levelled factories, and history buried with it. By the time residents become interested in their past, it becomes to expensive to accurately reclaim it. When I see historical maps of a Town such as St.Thomas with it’s rich railway and commercial history I wish I could have visited back in the 1950 – 1960s. I hope you and your students can capture in images what we have lost.
    Best Regards Peter Simpson

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