Marshall University App Brings History To Life In West Virginia And Beyond

Sep 26, 2019

The recently renovated Coin Harvey House on Third Avenue in Huntington is a beautiful old building with a double staircase and glass windows. It easily stands out from its modern-day surroundings, which include a fast food joint across the street and an auto body shop next door. 

“I am from this area, and I have lived and played in Huntington since I was little,” said Amanda Shaver, a Cabell County native and a graduate student at the Marshall University history department. “I remember seeing this house. It has such a unique look and feel to it, that once you see it, you won’t forget it. It looks like it belongs in New Orleans, or somewhere not Huntington.”

For a long time, the house was boarded up and abandoned, trapping much of its past inside and making its story nearly inaccessible to the public. 

The historic Coin Harvey House is located on Third Avenue in Huntington, West Virginia.
Credit Emily Allen / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Today, learning that history is as easy as pulling up an app on your phone — the Clio app, to be precise, which was developed about seven years ago by Marshall University’s history department.

Clio is a free website and mobile application that guides users through walking tours of historical and cultural sites created by volunteers, interns and students. 

“Just the opportunity to research something I had seen so many times growing up, and to actually know the history of it, and why it’s here, and what it means to the community really inspired me,” Shaver said. She worked on a Clio entry about the Coin Harvey House’s history earlier this year. 

In September, the National Endowment for the Humanities announced Clio was making some serious upgrades, thanks to several donations and grants, including $81,398 from the NEH grant and a $60,000 NEH matching grant

Shaver’s entry on the Coin Harvey House showcases some of those upgrades. In addition to a standard five-paragraph account of the history behind the house, she also included 360-degree images from inside, and an interview with Jim St. Clair, a local who most-recently renovated the house. 

The Coin Harvey House was built in the late 1800’s for William Harvey, a local lawyer and advocate for the “free silver” idea, which supported backing American money with silver, at a time when money was mostly backed by gold. Years after Harvey died in the 1960s, the house became a hub for local motorcyclists, until it fell into disrepair.

According to Shaver’s interview with St. Clair, the Harvey House is the last residence standing out of several large, historic homes that had once occupied Third Avenue. 

Clio was first created by Marshall professor David Trowbridge seven years ago as an engagement tool. He said the program is about showing students that history is everywhere.  

“I wanted to show them that history wasn't just something that happened on the East Coast and cities like Boston, but was all around them,” he said.

David Trowbridge is a history professor at Marshall University. He developed Clio about seven years ago.
Credit Emily Allen / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Every semester he offers students the opportunity to create entries of a historical site of their choosing for Clio. With the aforementioned grants — including support from the Whiting Foundation, the Knight Foundation and the West Virginia Humanities Council — Trowbridge said his students and other contributors can incorporate more multimedia, like interviews and images.

Still, the process of researching a site’s past remains the same. 

“They become people who are not content to simply Google it, or accept the first few hits that Google gives them,” Trowbridge said. “They become savvy consumers of information in an information age, when people oftentimes struggle to find valid sources online.”

Steven Straley, a graduate student at Marshall University, stands next to a statue of John Marshall, fourth chief justice of the United States, for whom Marshall University is named. Straley wrote about Marshall for the history-focused travel app, Clio.
Credit Emily Allen / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Today, Trowbridge reports Clio has been used in more than 100 universities and 300 historical hubs throughout the country. It houses 600 walking tours nationwide. 

Not only are there more entries, but there’s more people uploading them. Through donations and grants, Trowbridge said the Clio Foundation has offered a few paid opportunities for interns and volunteers to create entries. 

Emma Satterfield recently moved to Huntington from Texas to work on Clio through the Preserve West Virginia AmeriCorps program.

“I love the sort of public aspect that Clio has, and how [it's] not just looking at a book or going straight up to the monument and looking at a sign,” Satterfield said. “It's looking personal stories, sometimes, and the way that [they] really connect to actual people.”

Clio is most popular in its home state of West Virginia, where Trowbridge said there are about 80 Clio tours. He and Eric Waggoner, Executive Director of the West Virginia Humanities Council, call the app a great tool to highlight the state’s “heritage tourism,” in which people travel to learn more about a place’s history and culture. 

“The great benefit of Clio, I think, is that it turns the world into a museum,” Waggoner said. “It connects historical properties and historically significant sites and locations with the user directly through phone technology. And it allows people in their travels … to go on what amounts to basically a walking tour of historically significant sites, with information.”

Emma Satterfield works from Marshall University on creating West Virginia Clio entries through AmeriCorps and Preserve West Virginia.
Credit Emily Allen / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Yet, West Virginia also can be one of the trickiest places to use Clio, where some rural areas still lack broadband infrastructure and reliable cell service. Trowbridge said he’s hoping Clio will one day get a grant to address that. 

“One of the things we're trying to apply [for], are grants for some kind of a system that would make it possible to download a walking tour in advance, and then it could just use your phone's GPS,” Trowbridge said.

For now, Clio users can download PDFs of tours before traveling. 

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.