University of Calgary professors are digitally preserving an endangered heritage site important to Canada’s mountaineering history.
Today, western Canada is known for its vibrant mountaineering culture, but that was not the case in the years following the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1885. So the Canadian Pacific Railway brought Swiss mountain guides to the Rockies to share their mountaineering knowledge and promote tourism.
Edelweiss Village – six Swiss-style chalets on 20 hillside acres – was built north of Golden, BC, between 1910 and 1912 to house these guides and their families.
With the village now being put up for sale by the descendants of the original guides for $2.3 million, University of Calgary professors are working to digitally record the site and ensure it will not be lost over time.
According to the National Trust for Canada, Edelweiss Village is among the top 10 most vulnerable places in the country. Because the site is north of the city of Golden in Columbia’s Shushwap Regional District—a rural region with no historic preservation laws—potential buyers would not be required to preserve the buildings.
The Swiss Edelweiss Village Foundation was set up by a group hoping to buy and preserve the site, but so far this is not guaranteed.
Digital long-term archiving a helpful alternative
For Prof Peter Dawson, digital preservation is the next best thing when a site cannot be physically preserved for cost or environmental reasons. Using a terrestrial laser scanner, Dawson and his team collect data from heritage sites to create virtual replicas that the public can access online.
The Digital Heritage Archive focuses on “grassroots” heritage sites such as the Swiss Village. These are sites that matter to individuals and communities, although they don’t have official designations of meaning.
“Basically, our mission is to digitally preserve these grassroots heritage sites so that a record of them will be preserved if anything ever happens to them. But also so that the public can learn about their history through the public face of the archive and what it means to that particular community,” Dawson said.
Public awareness essential
Dawson says public awareness is key to heritage preservation. Digital archives help create awareness by making these pages accessible to people who do not have physical access to them.
To make the archive accessible to the public, Dawson is collaborating with Prof. Denis Gadbois of the University’s Department of Art and Art History. Gadbois uses photography to create virtual tours of heritage sites that go beyond simply cataloging their attributes.
“Only digital preservation helps create a replica or just preserve that story, but it’s not necessarily going to create the visual story you need for people to understand the beauty and history of it,” Gadbois said.
Hope for physical preservation
Johann Roduit is one of the founders of the Swiss Edelweiss Village Foundation. He moved to British Columbia from Switzerland and says it was incredible to see the village and the impact of Swiss immigration in Canada.
He believes that the village is important not only for the heritage of both countries, but also for the mountaineering culture worldwide. It came as a shock to him when he saw that the property was for sale.
“I was a bit surprised. How can such a cultural heritage be sold? I come from europe [and] I think of old monuments [there] – You will never have heritage sites for sale.”
Roduit says the original plan was to digitally map the site so people in Switzerland could see it. Now the organization is working to raise funds to buy and maintain it.
He says the organization crowdfunded a third of the funds for an initial $100,000 deposit and will continue to negotiate with the vendors.
Roduit says he’s grateful for the support the organization has received from Alberta and British Columbia, as well as Switzerland. Crowdfunding is phase 3 of their six phase plan to purchase and revitalize the area with a sustainable cultural tourism concept.