Opinion

Jourgensen: The pits that wouldn’t quit

For sheer drama and tragedy, the decades-long saga of the West Lynn clay pits ranks high among enduring Lynn tales. Labeled in the 1950s and 1960s as “death traps for children,” the pits during one epic fire in 1965 emitted “a black, oily, foul-smelling smoke,” according to Daily Evening Item coverage of the time, that forced families to evacuate their homes and wash “scum” off dishes. The pits seemed to take on a life of their own as something evil and indestructible.

Located on Holyoke Street but also in the direction of Walnut Street, the pits actually numbered nine in total and the human toll they exacted in West Lynn was grim. There were drownings through the ’50s and ’60s, and probably earlier and later, including the death of Ralph “Chappie” Sibley in 1953 and Jerry Dembowski in 1964.

Both boys’ deaths galvanized Lynn and packed City Hall with angry West Lynn residents intent on hearing solutions for making the clay pits either safe or history. City leaders bounced ideas back and forth and got the federal government involved, but news accounts paint a picture of the clay pits defying all efforts to make them safe or destroy them.

Suggestions to drain them were declared unfeasible and efforts to fill them up in 1962 attracted convoys of trucks loaded with demolition debris from sites around Greater Boston. The plaster, lathe and wood packed into the pits would come back to haunt the city in 1997 when newly-built Classical High School demonstrated tell-tale and then very obvious signs that the multi-million dollar building was sinking into West Lynn.

But it is the tragic offshoot of the pits that somehow endures across time. During a heated 1952 City Council meeting held well before a permanent solution to the pits was proposed and enacted, city custodian Harry B. Whiting walked into the Council Chamber and told the audience and city leaders how his brother drowned in one of the pits 26 years earlier. Item coverage describes how the audience sat in silence as Whiting walked out of the chamber after finishing his remarks.

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There’s a lot to be learned on Bond Street when Iris Arsenault, Joyce Gotimer Rickson and their friends hold court. Rickson’s father, Harry Gotimer, was a local junkman working out of Vine Street. “Call Harry” was the neighborhood refrain whenever someone needed to get rid of something. By the same token, Gotimer was also the man to call if a household item broke and a replacement was needed.

Arsenault recalled when farming still flourished in the city, including plots in the Highlands. She also remembers when Strawberry Brook ran right past the former Lynn Hospital almost to Saugus.

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Speaking of resident historians, Dave Pruitt lives in New Hampshire, by the Vermont border, but he has a great knowledge of Lynn, specifically Lynn Woods, where he said the chimney that once served the former trolley station can still be seen.

It must have been fun back in the days when the trolley ran into the Woods and people disembarked for picnics and a day of fun or spent time in “camps” built in the Woods’ vicinity.

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This one comes from someone for whom I have the utmost respect: Soon-to-retire School Superintendent Dr. Catherine C. Latham and Secretary to the School Committee Thomas P. Iarrobino were spotted on Exchange Street delivering copies of a Lynn schools marketing and promotional brochure. As my esteemed contributor noted: “How many people in any job, 13 days away from retirement, would not only be resisting the temptation to coast, but also hand-delivering brochures to promote the district?”

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