Digital History: Learning to Gather, Preserve, and Present J. Horace McFarland and the Harrisburg Park Commission

By; Sam Erikson

According to historians Daniel Cohn and Roy Rosenzweig, digital history is the process of “gathering, preserving, and presenting the past on the web.” It sounds simple, yet complex. However, if you utilize the historical tools and platforms that work for you, the possibilities for conducting digital historical work are endless. 

Going into this course in late August 2022, I thought that due to my lack of digital skills I would fall far behind at a rapid pace, left scrambling. I was also frankly, overwhelmed with all of the work that the final assignment required. However, as the course progressed, I found platforms that I connected with and could maneuver with relative ease. 

One of those platforms was ESRI Story Maps. It was an engaging platform that was easy to use and to understand. ESRI Story Maps allows users to combine text, images, interactive maps, timelines, and so much more to create an immersive historical narrative. We put it to practical use in class around week 13 of the class and I was immediately enamored with it. I began my project using ESRI Story Maps and all of my worries about the final project dissipated. I was able to easily input data, digitized images, and text all on one platform with relative ease. 

My project focused on J. Horace McFarland’s involvement with the Harrisburg Park Commission in the first decade of the 20th century. He was elected to the First Harrisburg Park Commission in January 1905 and then was elected to the Second Commission in November 1907. While on the Committee, McFarland was involved in purchases, improvements, and extensions in a variety of locations throughout Harrisburg including Reservoir Park, Hargest’s Island (City Island), Island Park, Front Street Park (Riverfront Park), State Street, and Wildwood Park. 

J. Horace McFarland and the Harrisburg Park Commission ESRI Story Map

The extension of Reservoir Park began in 1904 when the land was purchased by the Commission, expanding the Park by 45 acres. However, the new addition was not immediately opened to the public. Before it was publicly accessible, the land, which was made up of farm fields, needed to be renovated and converted to a park recreation area. In 1905, the Reservoir Park extension was finished, and the public was admitted to the area. In his Report of The Harrisburg Park Commission For The Year Ending December 31, 1908, however, McFarland explained that the extension was in need of repair. First, the playground needed improvements in equipment, most notably swings, see-saws, the slide, and the merry-go-round. Second, McFarland stated that the benches and tables in the park needed to be repainted. Third, he discussed the need for a barn to be constructed in the park to house tool, storage, and repair rooms.

ARC GIS map of Reservoir Park circa 1900

Hargest’s Island, now known as City Island, was also acquired while McFarland served on the Harrisburg Park Commission. It was leased by the Harrisburg Bridge Company out to the Harrisburg Park Commission for the span of 20 years renting it out at one dollar a year. A park nursery was established on the Island, in which trees and plants were propagated for the city’s use. The nursery saved the city over $5,000 in 1906. The section of Hargest’s Island that was located south of Market Street was called Island Park. 

Island Park, upon purchase, was converted into a recreation field. Island Park was comprised of four baseball diamonds, a basketball court, five tennis courts, and floating baths. Two of the four baseball diamonds, according to McFarland’s Review, were converted into football fields during football season.

Wildwood Park was established while McFarland was part of the Commission. Wildwood Park was created when the Harrisburg Park Commission purchased the tract of land to protect the Paxton Creek Valley from flooding. When the land was renovated, it was established as a recreational area for citizens living in and around Harrisburg. 

Image of Wildwood Park circa 1908, Courtesy of the Dauphin County Historical Society

State Street was beautified in 1904, alongside the construction of a new State Capitol. In his Review of the Work of the Harrisburg Park Commission Previous to 1908, McFarland detailed a plan for improvements to State Street. These improvements included central, stone curbed grass plots, which were successfully maintained and still remain today.

Lastly, Riverfront Park also underwent significant transformations under McFarland. Improvements included the path on the riverbank being completed and lit, benches placed along the paths, and the park being policed to ensure the citizens’ safety. By 1908, the riverfront itself spanned approximately two miles and the park area was heavily utilized by the public. 

Image of Front Street Park circa 1908, Courtesy of the Dauphin County Historical Society

Public education and loans were the catalysts of the Movement, financing paved streets, pure water, recreation centers, a revamped waterfront, and expansive parks.  All the renovation efforts were made possible by bonds loaned out, for a total of $1,009,000. 

Conducting this research has been especially meaningful for me because I have lived close to Harrisburg all my life. I grew up going to baseball games at City Island, going to festivals along the riverfront, and going on walks at Wildwood, so the opportunity to dive into this topic and discover the people who made the places I know, and love was an honor. It has given me a deeper appreciation for the place I call home, and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to digitize my work so that future student historians can further my research and ask deeper questions in further iterations of this course and beyond about the Old Eighth Ward and 20th century Harrisburg. 

About the author: Sam Erikson is a sophomore at Messiah University. He is majoring in communications and minoring in history.

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