07/01/2012 04:30 EDT | Updated 08/30/2012 05:12 EDT

Hundreds of colonial-era photos uploaded to Flickr to mark Canada Day

TORONTO - Horse-drawn carriages parade down a quaint and unpaved Government Street in downtown Victoria. Fishing canoes rest undisturbed on the marshy banks of the Red River in Winnipeg. A sleepy, muddy King Street West sits empty in downtown Toronto.

These historical snapshots of colonial-era Canada are part of a collection of hundreds of photos released by Britain's National Archives to mark this year's Canada Day.

The original black and white photographs taken in the mid-to-late 1800s and early 1900s, have been scanned and posted on the photo-sharing site Flickr.

The online exhibit, however, is more than just an opportunity for members of the public to see rare images of pre-Confederation Canada, such as the original building of the Galt Hospital in Lethbridge, Alta.

"We have put online the images from Canada in the hope that people can add their stories, memories and descriptions to them to provide context," says Laura Cowdrey, a spokesperson for the National Archives in London.

Among the highlights of the collection, called "Canada through a lens," are some of the earliest known photos of Toronto, taken in 1856 and 1857.

The photos had been originally submitted to Britain's Colonial Office along with the city's bid to become the "permanent seat of government for the Province of Canada," when several Canadian cities applied to be the country's capital.

Since the mid-'80s, when the City of Toronto eventually got copies of the photos from the Colonial Office, the images have become a big attraction at the Toronto Archives, which has its own photo stream on Flickr.

"We get 50 to 60,000 image views each month," says Carol Radford-Grant, Toronto's city archivist.

Cowdrey says the inspiration for the latest initiative came from a pioneering project of Library and Archives Canada, called Project Naming, through which members of Canada's Inuit communities helped to identify people and places in a vast amount of archive photos.

An Ottawa researcher says social media is a powerful tool to make history accessible to the public.

"Something like Flickr gives people the opportunity to comment and to add," says Jim Burant, who was a manager for art and photo archives during Project Naming.

Burant recalls receiving more than 8,000 submissions with detailed information on military vehicles from one Second World War enthusiast after Library and Archives Canada uploaded part of a war records series in 2004.

In addition to the early photos of some of Canada's largest cities, the latest exhibit also includes photos of the determination of the border between the U.S. and Canada in 1876, the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto in 1905, as well as other scenes of rural and urban Canada.

The collection of close to 1,000 images can be viewed at www.flickr.com/photos/nationalarchives/collections