HU professor, students map out Harrisburg’s history

Research is a hallmark of Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.

And to encourage collaborative research among professors and students, each year, University President Dr. Eric Darr awards grants, dubbed Presidential Research Grants, to help fund a series of projects.

The grants are not merely awarded to push professors and students to work together, however. The funding fuels projects, pitched by professors, which are aimed at changing lives and providing answers to long-unsolved questions.

For example, to help understand the changing distribution of ethnicity, race, occupation and other variables that shaped Harrisburg, Geospatial Technology Professor Albert Sarvis recently was awarded a Presidential Research Grant for the second consecutive year. The modest $6,500 grant will allow Sarvis and students to continue a Digital Humanities Harrisburg research project he undertook in collaboration with Messiah College more than three years ago. A portion of the money also will be used to continue a drone digital mapping project, also in collaboration with Messiah College Professor Dr. David Pettegrew, in Corinth, Greece.

The Digital Humanities Harrisburg project was launched in 2014 to discover how social change indicators, such as ethnicity, race, income and more, helped shape early 20th Century Harrisburg.

Interactive map of 1900 census records completed in the spring of 2015

Dramatic changes occurred during and after what is called the City Beautiful Movement, including the expansion of Harrisburg’s capitol complex in the early 20th Century, which forced many immigrants, minorities and lower-income citizens who lived in the city’s old 8th ward to settle elsewhere in the city, and beyond. More than 2,000 residents were displaced, and 430 buildings were leveled to make room for the Capitol.

Using census data and geospatial technology, Sarvis and his students created a comprehensive online map that outlines where each former building was located prior to demolition, who owned the properties, and where residents moved as the capitol complex expanded east.

They didn’t stop there, however.

Sarvis and his students, also in collaboration with Messiah College, are plotting the entire city, and plan to continue expanding the online map as each section of Harrisburg is mapped out. During the past more than three years, Sarvis and his students have mapped the Harrisburg population from 1900 to 1930 using census data curated from and translated by Messiah College faculty and students.

“By studying the changing distribution of ethnicity, race, occupation and other variables, HU and Messiah College researchers hope to continue to gain new insight, and visually demonstrate to the public, the dynamic nature of early 20th century Harrisburg,” Sarvis said.

The ongoing work will culminate in the publication of Harrisburg University’s methodology and findings.  Originally slated for the spring 2018 issue of the Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, the incremental progress of the work has pushed back publication to Spring 2019.

The issue will include articles pertaining to the Digital Harrisburg work. And HU has been asked to contribute a co-authored article, by a student and faculty, detailing the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) component of the spatial data development and analysis.

“We’re developing a really good data set. We have almost 300,000 records of people who lived in Harrisburg during the first four decades of the 20th Century,” Sarvis said. “And, from a geospatial standpoint, you’re able to look at population distribution and how the population moved around. From a historical standpoint, you see how has the city changed over time, and the impact of the city beautiful movement.”

Accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Harrisburg University is a private non-profit university offering bachelor and graduate degree programs in science, technology, and math fields to a diverse student body. For more information on the University’s affordable demand-driven undergraduate and graduate programs, call 717.901.5146 or email,