Opinion

Jourgensen: A plaque-by-plaque trip through the past

The bridge is long gone, but this Paradise Road abutment plaque commemorates a Depression-era federal works project.

Call me what you will but I love plaques. My wife will attest to the fact that I will stop on a dime and read words carved into granite or inscribed on a hunk of brass. It took us four-plus hours to tour the Gettysburg battlefield in part because you-know-who had to read every &@#$% plaque. 

The great thing about plaques and inscriptions is that they are thumbnail history. In 10 seconds you can digest a snippet of the past and walk away knowing something you didn’t know 10 seconds ago. 

Let’s take a quick Lynn and Swampscott plaque tour starting at the busy West Lynn intersection of Holyoke and Walnut streets where an imposing stone house looms over the roadway. The home’s lofty status makes it a source of interest and the plaque mounted in a stone at its base enhances curiosity. 

The plaque mounted on the stone informs the reader that Richard Sadler “settled here” in 1635. It goes on to say that the stone house was built by “J.R.N.” in 1854. The mystery of exactly who J.R.N. was merits solving. But there is no question that the stone house was built on a prominent location near Breeds Pond with the home’s elevation offering panoramic views of Lynn and Saugus. 

Sadler was apparently a notable person: Serving, according to the plaque, as the “first clerk of the writs.” Oh, speaking of history, it warms my heart to see the corner of Blakeley Street and Walnut named in honor of the late great Jack O’Donnell, Lynn City Councilor.

From West Lynn we journey downtown to 45 Market St. where the Jewish Community Center’s former Lynn site is memorialized in a shiny modern plaque on one of the city’s busiest streets. 

Following its founding in October 1911, the JCC “quickly became the hub of a vibrant Jewish life for thousands of Eastern European immigrants.” That single sentence offers an insight into the immigration dynamics that shaped Lynn a century ago. It also offers a perspective on pre-World War I European history with immigrants leaving native lands for the United States and eventual settlement in Lynn. 

The JCC moved to Marblehead in 1972, according to the plaque, and almost everyone in the Lynn area knows the strong sense of community fostered by the JCC. 

I have a special attachment to the Jan E. Matzeliger plaques on the Fayette Street bridge crossing the commuter rail tracks because I reported on the bridge’s 1990 dedication ceremony presided over by former Gov. Michael S. Dukakis. 

Not one, but two metal plaques honoring Matzeliger are affixed to the bridge’s abutments. Created by the great Reno Pisano of Nahant, a veritable Picasso and wonderful raconteur, the plaques salute a man who revolutionized the shoemaking industry in the same way the people who created iPhones revolutionized the communications industry. And Matzeliger, who died in 1889, did it all before the age of 47. 

I was disappointed to see the Matzeliger plaques defaced with graffiti and here’s hoping a city or state crew or — better yet — civic-minded youth can make an effort to clean the plaques and read up on Matzeliger’s genius. 

Our final stop on the plaque tour is the bridge abutment at Paradise and Farragut roads in Swampscott. I love trains and railroads and I am always fascinated by the bygone rails snaking through Lynn and other North Shore communities. The Paradise Road bridge abutment bears an impressive Art Deco metal plaque emblazoned with an eagle and bearing prominent Massachusetts and Swampscott names of the 20th century, including former Gov. Charles F. Hurley, Public Works Commissioner William F. Callahan and Chief Engineer George H. Delano. 

Dated 1938, the plaque commemorates the end-of-the-Depression federal works projects that propped up the American economy with thousands of infrastructure improvements, including the rail abutment and long-gone bridge that spanned Paradise Road.

More Stories From Lynn