Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

City Beautiful, City Searchable: Digital Harrisburg uses today’s technology to peek into our past.

Screenshot 2015-09-28 10.03.18In 1900, Syl F. Hammill lived at 208 Reily St., Harrisburg.

He was a train conductor, not unusual in a railroad town. Mary, his wife of 31 years, was born in Massachusetts, and her parents were born in Connecticut. The Hamill’s three unmarried children—William, a 25-year-old clerk, Roy, 17, a student, and Lila, 28, a bookbinder—lived with them. The household spoke English. All could read and write.

Who lived in your city home in 1900? You now can find out thanks to Digital Harrisburg, a collaboration of students and faculty from Messiah College and Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. Together, they digitized Harrisburg’s 1900 census, making it searchable online by name and address.

It’s a fun peek behind the lace curtains of homes in what were then the city’s boundaries. But, more importantly, Digital Harrisburg is embarking on a voyage into the past to answer questions that traditional historians have struggled to answer about a time of change and disruption.

Seeking Answers

The turn of the 20th century was the era of City Beautiful, when Harrisburg was a leader in the young nation’s progressive urban movement.

Though City Beautiful has been well documented, questions remain. When ridding the city of typhus depended on a yes vote for a municipal bond for sewer upgrades, why did some precincts vote no? We know about the elites who championed City Beautiful, but how did the reforms affect the everyday lives of citizens?

The questions are still being explored, but Digital Harrisburg has begun seeking answers. It started when liberal arts Messiah College and nerdy Harrisburg University started conversing on ways to blend humanities and technology. At Messiah, Associate Professor David Pettegrew turned his digital history class students into sort of 1900 census-takers, transcribing census data into a database for easy searching.

At the same time, students of Albert Sarvis, Harrisburg University assistant professor of geospatial technology and project management, aligned Harrisburg’s 1901 road network with today’s map. Another class vectorized—that is, drew the shapes—of city buildings and lined up the shapes with the address codes tied to the census findings of Pettegrew’s students.

It’s not as if the findings themselves are new. They’ve been discoverable in records for decades—for anyone with the unlimited time to find them. Digitization makes results instantly searchable. Demographic trends in income, occupation, race and ethnicity quickly pop up by geography. Where did families live who had the highest rate of living children, versus those who had lost the largest numbers of children? That might have influenced their City Beautiful votes.

It’s a way to compare “a pattern or any other spatial layer you want to,” said Sarvis.

“It’s not just how many German illiterate women there are, but exactly where in the city they are,” he added.

Never Knew Existed

Rachel Carey joined the project as a Pettegrew student and is now the data master. The history major with a minor in music (she plays French horn) graduates from Messiah College at the end of 2015 and then looks forward to a graduate program in history.

Digitizing history is the 21st-century solution to the age-old puzzle of how to engage new generations in history, said Carey. Historians have a new tool to “bring the past into the present” and help contemporary audiences relate to the neighborhoods and communities of the past, even in “this smallish city.”

“My favorite part is being able to visualize the past, and that’s what this project is all about,” she said. “We take these people who formerly we knew nothing about. We put it on the Internet and map their houses. You go onto the map, click a house, and you can read all of this information about these people you never knew existed.”

At Messiah, the project has become an “energized enterprise” among faculty and students from many classes. Some students of Messiah History Department Chairman John Fea added Market Square Presbyterian Church membership records to the database, finding where church members, many among the city’s elite, lived in relation to neighborhoods and ethnicities. For the rest of 2015, inputting citywide property values for 1900 is a top priority for the Digital Harrisburg team.

The full project continues using digital tools to explore Harrisburg history in 1910 and 1920 through the lens of City Beautiful. Just who were the winners and losers? The answers could help guide the city through new reforms and adoption of a comprehensive plan.

“Why is the city the way it is right now?” asked Sarvis. “Does looking back 70 or 80 years predict anything? Maybe not, but maybe it can promote ideas to preserve certain areas of the city. It’s not just an academic exercise. We may be able to see some trends that reveal something about the impact of the City Beautiful movement.”

In the meantime, young audiences of the digital age will find hometown history “in an interesting, hands-on way,” said Carey.

“History is too infrequently hands-on,” she said. “You get to be hands-on in the sciences and the arts, but not so much in history, and I think this’ll really draw the kids in, get them to like the past, because they’ll get to work closely with it. They’ll get to know these people and learn about their lives.”

Discover fascinating information about Harrisburg’s past and find out more about the project at

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