Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Plymouth Rock at Echo Lake?

We run into plenty of historic markers -- plaques on boulders -- in our travels. Every once in a while, they're head scratchers.

For instance, there's the one in Union County's Echo Lake Park, situated near the western end of the lake. It's not far from the intersection of Route 22 and Mountain Avenue in Mountainside.

It stands alone in a grassy field, with no benches or contemplative area to give it context. One might think it was dedicated to someone associated with the creation of the park in the mid 1920s, or to whatever might have been there before the park, but it isn't. The inscription on the plaque is rather puzzling:

If you can't quite make it out, the inscription reads: "New Jersey State Branch of the National Society Sons and Daughters of the Pilgrims planted this site to commemorate the courage faith and ideals of our early settlers 1966."

I'm all for memorializing the people who helped found the country, and when I researched the Sons and Daughters of the Pilgrims, I discovered that's the business they're in, so to speak. Founded in 1908, the organization's members are the descendants of people who came to the New World before 1700. Their ancestors didn't have to have come over on the Mayflower, but they've been around a loooong time. And part of their mission, beyond encouraging the study of Pilgrim history, is to create "durable memorials of historic men, women, and events."

So that explains why the New Jersey chapter would invest in placing a good sized brass plaque on a very large stone in a public place. It doesn't explain, however, why the plaque and stone would be placed at Echo Lake. While it's a well-used park, it doesn't have the visibility of a downtown location in a major city, and that part of the park gets much less visitorship than other areas. Someplace in Military Park in Newark, or even within the grounds of the Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth would be more fitting, considering the founding dates of both cities.

Why, indeed, does Union County need its own Plymouth Rock?

Your guess is as good as mine, but I do have a theory, fueled by the relatively recent appearance of a series of historic markers on nearby Mountain Avenue. Signs for the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route (or W3R) mark the path taken in 1781 by the Continental Army and ground forces sent by France to help American forces finally defeat the British. Starting in Boston where more than 4000 French officers and troops landed, and extending south to Yorktown, Virginia, the route actually diverges in New Jersey, reflecting the more westerly route the French took (more or less along current day Routes 202, 287 and some county roads) and the easterly route Washington's troops took (attempting to convince the British of yet another possible attempt to invade Staten Island) before heading toward Trenton. The Mountain Avenue segment is part of that easterly route.

Knowledgeable as they must be about colonial history, had the New Jersey Pilgrim sons and daughters deliberately chosen to plant their memorial in Mountainside alongside this pivotal Revolutionary route? Or was it just a happy coincidence?

Or maybe the answer is much simpler. In time-honored Jersey tradition, could it be that the Pilgrim descendants just knew a guy at Union County Park Commission who could get the stone placed? Who knows? Stranger things have been known to happen.

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