Student project paints picture of St. Catharines history for the public

What did the population of St. Catharines look like in 1900?

That’s the question Brock University students aimed to answer during a recent project looking into the city’s history.

Students in HIST 2P26 — Introduction to Digital History spent the past semester digging into archival material in hopes of not only shedding light on St. Catharines’ past, but also sharing their findings with the public.

Forty students took on the task of transcribing St. Catharines tax rolls from 1900 to build a database and create an historical GIS map of the city’s population at the turn of the 20th century.

“The project gave students digital skills as well as experience working with archival materials and writing social history,” said Assistant Professor of History Colin Rose, who works with GIS data in his own research.

“A lot of them have commented on how this student-driven learning experience has helped them develop new skills, like reading cursive, and really understand the process of designing and pursuing a history or digital humanities project.”

The students used GIS to match the previous city population to the current road layout, showing exactly where individuals from the past would live today. They also included statistical data on the number of children, total property value, occupation, age and pets within each household.

“It’s interesting to see what occupations people had then,” said second-year student Elisa Mastroianni, who worked with Vanessa Barbera to transcribe data from a section of the city’s St. George’s ward. The pair found occupations as diverse as piano tuner, labourer and bicyclist in their data.

“Women were always designated as wife or widow in the tax roll,” said Barbera. “Some were landlords renting out property.”

Mastroianni was intrigued by details of past lifestyles.

“It was interesting to see what family life was like,” she said.

Students found interesting spatial patterns in their data, noting that housing was clustered by socio-economic status rather than by ethnicity. Working class neighbourhoods — particularly, apartment blocks — where a lot of migrant labours made their first homes were highly diverse areas.

Students also commented on the surprising lack of family dogs, although that could be an idiosyncrasy of data recording, Rose said.

Rose and the students worked closely on the project with Brock’s Archives and Special Collections and St. Catharines Museum, which provided tax rolls for digitization.

“It is a public history project that gives local history enthusiasts access to a trove of genealogical and historical information on St. Catharines’ past,” said Rose. “The students have done a public service through their research and learning, which, hopefully, the community will find value in.”

The interactive, dynamic WebGIS students have been constructing allows users to explore and analyze the historical population of St. Catharines. The project is available at

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