Immortality, Boston Style

October 8th, 2009 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

Elihu Greenwood mugshotRelative immortality in these parts used to cling to landowners. Consider two artifacts — Paul’s Bridge and the Greenwood School.

In what seemed a period with a dearth of imagination, locals settled here with the titular trappings of their old digs. Boston, for an obvious example, and many settlements were English town names familiar to the newcomers. Then by the 18th and 19 Centuries, they progressed slightly to naming places and even objects for their own.

However, despite the assertion that in these parts it was what you know, not whom you know, it was in fact the wealthy landowner who got the honors. Imagine.

Down on what is now the Milton/Hyde Park line,  by 1784, the artfully constructed Paul’s Bridge had that name. It was not from some Revolutionary War hero with that first name. Rather, the nearby farming family with that last name owned the most land in the area. In the British tradition of kissing up to the wealthy, that family got this wee honor.

The Greenwood naming orgy (streets, squares, schools and more) was similar but had greater justification.  The 19th Century Elihu Greenwood (1807-71) was likewise a farmer, but a civic-minded one. He did part with tracts of land to advance the commonweal. A grateful then Dorchester, then Hyde Park and now Boston named this and that for him.

On the face of it, he appears in tiny bios in old books in the Boston Public Library social-sciences area only as a Dorchester school board member. However, the very helpful research librarian (I wish they had name tags; I must ask her to ID herself), knew where to find those bios, is herself from Roslindale and a student of that neighborhood’s history, and knew where the real goodies are online.

She pointed me to PDF files of The Hyde Park Historical Record. Wherein, Elihu’s sole child, Herbert wrote up a charming account of his dad in Vol. VI on pages 54 and 55. I lifted the mug above from the included plate image.

Elihu, I would note, is Hebrew for He is my God. Befitting such piety, the Elihu in question did not hoard his gold. As Herbert wrote:

He was a public-spirited man, especially in his actions. He, and a friend of his, Mr. John Weld, of Jamaica Plain, were instrumental in having the County Commissioners lay out what is now known as Harvard and Hyde Park avenues from Fairmount avenue to Forest Hills ; in order that this should not fail, he gave all the land required for this across his farm from Westminster street to the brook this side of Clarendon Hills. He also gave one-half the land for Metropolitan avenue from East River street to Greenwood Square. He donated fifteen hundred dollars toward the erection of the Baptist church, and was one of the building committee of the same. A few years after his death his widow donated eighteen hundred dollars to the Methodist Church. The Greenwood School, Greenwood Avenue, and Greenwood Square, were all named in honor of him.

So, we can probably infer that if you want relative immortality around here, amass some property and then give a good portion of it for the public good.

So remember though that even the finest monuments have real tenures of only hundreds or thousands of years. You’ll be long gone…but immortality?

Better we should recall Shelley’s most famous sonnet, Ozymandias, which includes:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

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2 Responses

  1. adamg says:

    A bit disappointing to hear that about Paul’s Bridge. I’d always pictured some pre-Revolutionary farmer named Paul heroically battling the mighty Neponset to get the crops to market so he could buy the medicines his sickly daughter needed to survive. Or something.

  2. Uncle says:

    The contemporary name that conjures hereabouts is Wyman. He turns out to have been a farmer turned real estate speculator with visions of summer cottage communities. His acquisitiveness earned him a ready place in local place names. He owned my land, and my house, during one of those spurts.

    A pity. the first recorded Anglo owner of this piece was the Rev. Hugh Peter, who despised this swamp and went back to England, where he became one of the regicides of Charles I. He would have done better to stay and fight the bugs. I would prefer to have a Peter Street to a Wyman Street, anyway.

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