Harrisburg has been the state capital of Pennsylvania since 1812, but has had its fair share of ups and downs in city appeal. Nearing the end of the 19th century, the town was at a crossroads. After a brief period of industrial boom in the steel business, it had lost its luster and looked nothing like the capitals of the modern age. Both Philadelphia and Pittsburg were vying for the title of capital city, leaving Harrisburg to either live up to its status or renounce its claim.
At the turn of the 19th century, a movement that would soon become nationwide began to take flight in Harrisburg. Catalyzed by a speech from Mira Lloyd Dock, a local influential, botanist, and educator, to the Harrisburg Board of Trade in 1900, the “Harrisburg Idea” or City Beautiful movement spread throughout the city trying to bring it up out of industrial blight (Beers 24). From improving the shoddy water filtration system, adding public green spaces and parks, roadways, and public buildings, the entire city was in a race to remake itself
Now, fast forward to Messiah College‘s 2018 J-Term Digital History class. With digital technology on the rise, students are being taught that all historians must adapt to a new method of historical research and presentation. New technologies allow for much faster research and several different ways to exhibit data that lead to new discoveries by pretty much anyone with access to a computer. The only problem is that most of the source material historians work with is analog rather than a collection of 1s and 0s. The focus of this class then is working with the Digital Harrisburg Project to collect and exhibit the documents that tell the story of City Beautiful. I myself am researching the wealth of green space and park conservation that seemed to spring up in this period. What I have found goes beyond just the park preservation in Harrisburg. Through the process of research and digitization, I have learned the true innovative nature of the digital archive and how it has changed the way history is made and presented.
First, let me provide a little background to the City Beautiful movement. After reading through City Contented, City Discontented: A History of Modern Harrisburg by Paul Beers, one can see just how quickly this movement took off. Once one person spoke up about the rampant uncleanliness of the city, people began to hop on the bandwagon left and right. Vance McCormick, using the idea of a clean city free of Typhoid and other ailments, ran his entire campaign for mayor on the idea of City Beautiful (Beers 32). As chairman of the Municipal League, he knew the town budget was tight, but stated ” It must be confessed that Harrisburg has not pushed herself to the form with the energy that she should…There has been too much indifference to the public welfare in a selfish desire to benefit the individual.” (McCormick, Beers 28) After using the “Anti-Typhoid ticket” to rally for improvements in water filtration, McCormick was elected mayor in 1902 and given a bond issue by the city to pay for the massive improvements (Beers 34). The amount of public support for this movement was astounding and other cities took notice. The Pittsburg Press wrote: “It is a credit to the intelligence of the average voter in Harrisburg that the loan received so amazing an endorsement.” (Beers 34). McCormick was joined by many city influentials who funded the renovation, most notably Mira Lloyd Dock and J. Horace McCormick who contributed to the water filtration system, establishment of new paved roads and public buildings, and the conservation of public spaces for parks, playgrounds, and squares.
I decided to focus most of my research on Dock and McFarland since they were the most mentioned in the readings we had been doing in class when it came to the subject of public parks. Thinking that researching just two people would heavily limit the amount of information I would find, I didn’t think I would have much to go through. After arriving at the Pennsylvania State Archive and receiving my first folder with at least 40-50 hand written letters inside, however, I soon learned just how much material exists on this subject. It took me half of the four hours spent at the archive to wade through just four folders of letters and pictures sent to Mira Dock, taking pictures of legible documents that had anything to do with the parks in Harrisburg. Believe me when I say there was no shortage of material. The sheer amount of documentation for all of Dock’s work with the PA Forestry Association (F.L. Bitter) , the School of Horticulture for Women (Lee) , the Harrisburg Civic Club , and even the state government was overwhelming (ExplorePAHistory.com). The same went for the hundreds of personal papers on file for J. Horace McFarland. His connection with the Municipal League, Harrisburg Executive Committee, and later on the American Civic Association in D.C. gave him ins with numerous people in power across not just the state of Pennsylvania but the whole United States (Beers 90). He was instrumental in proposing the Municipal Improvement Plan (Harrisburg Executive Committee) which called for all of the new improvements to the city and had several correspondences with Dock over land negotiations, horticultural education of the citizens, and opportunities for park creation (McFarland). These two went on to be nationally recognized for their work and Harrisburg was left with new and expanded parks that stretched the city borders and welcomed visitors from tons of neighboring boroughs. Even though the city expanded into local areas, Harrisburg became a nucleus of influence that stretched for miles.
Collecting enough documents to get a clear picture was a painstaking process and by the end, though I had learned a great deal, I was still unsure of what to do with the vast amount of information. This is where the digitization came in handy. After importing my photos onto my computer and sorting them into their correct folders online, I could see patterns in the letters and compare them side by side. Cataloging the dates and other pieces of what is known as metadata (details about the original document attached to the digital version) can show which years had the most correspondences or group them by name or key words, something that would take a human hours to do (Weller 8, 86). In Toni Weller’s edited book, History in the Digital Age, Jim Mussell notes that whil that while traditional historical skills like critical thinking are still very necessary to study the past, they can and should be coupled with digital technology in order to increase the speed and efficacy of research (Mussell 87). But even the digital versions of these documents have something new to tell about their analog counterpart. Because of the interactive quality of digital documents and archives, it is now possible to search across documents, read into their metadata, and utilize the digital source itself to make previously unreachable discoveries. Digital archives like the ones being constructed for City Beautiful provide easily accessed artifacts in their own right, worthy of study and interpretation.
As I move forward with my research on the park conservation in Harrisburg my goal is to find patterns and trends that will shed light on a new aspect of the City Beautiful movement. I would have thought this task impossible at the beginning of the term. Ten days to create a mini archive and answer a serious historical question seemed insurmountable. However, I’ve learned that through adapting to digitization and working more with my computer, I can upload information in half the time. Being able to compare multiple sources at a time, study their metadata, and search through them instantly I can find connections I would have never seen if I were flipping through documents and writing down notes. Like many historians today, I had never really used computer technology for its full potential. But with as many benefits as digital archiving provides to research and study, I feel that it would be a mistake to go without it. This class has shown me so many new ways to work with historical material and continues to increase my interest in the growing field digital humanities.
Beers, Paul B., Michael Barton, Eric Robert Papenfuse, and Catherine Lawrence. City Contented, City Discontented: a History of Modern Harrisburg. Pennsylvania: Midtown Scholar Press. 2011.
Bitter, F.L. F.L. Bitter to Mira Lloyd Dock. 1908. Pennsylvania State Archives.
Harrisburg Executive Committee Minutes. Historical Society of Dauphin County. Pennsylvania.
Lee, Elizabeth Leightor. Elizabeth Leightor Lee to Mira Lloyd Dock. 1911. Pennsylvania State Archives.
McFarland, J. Horace. J. Horace McFarland to Mira Lloyd Dock. 1906. Pennsylvania State Archives.
“Mira Lloyd Dock Historical Marker.” ExplorePAHistory.com, 2010. http://explorepahistory.com/hmarker.php?markerId=1-A-3C4.
Mussell, Jim. “Doing and Making: History as Digital Practice.” In History in the Digital Age, Toni Weller (New York: Taylor and Francis Group, 2013), 79-94.
Weller, Toni. History in the Digital Age. New York: Taylor and Francis Group. 2013.