By Bob (Monty) Doherty
What is fortitude? And why does Somerville have so much of it? Fortitude, according to Webster’s Dictionary means: “strength of mind that allows one to endure pain of adversity with courage.” A few synonyms would include: bravery, fearlessness, endurance, intrepidity, perseverance, strength and staying power. Fortitude is a quality that has been exhibited through the ideas, words and actions of thousands of Somerville citizens throughout the years. Somerville has, on the lighter side, a healthy dose of…well…let’s call it “42” ude. By this, I mean the city’s uncanny number of parallels and connections with the number 42. The number 42 has been cited as something of an enigma by various sources and cultural references. The most well known might be from Douglas Adams’ iconic book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In his Hitchhiker series, the number 42 is stated to be the answer to life, the universe and everything. “42” ude is emblematic of fortitude and describes a situation which is unique to this city. Are you ready to take a walk through time? Let’s go!
Somerville was the home of John Winthrop, the first Governor of Massachusetts, who crossed the Atlantic with his Puritan followers in 1630 when he was 42 years old. He presided over the court that created Harvard College, the first college in the nation, which graduated its first class in 1642. Winthrop and his followers established Charlestown, which covered most of the land between the Charles River and Merrimack River including what are now 13 cities and towns. Woburn was the first town to separate in 1642. Somerville was the last, exactly two centuries later in 1842.
A man of great fortitude, Captain Richard Somers, hero of the war with Tripoli and quite probably the namesake of our city, spent the last day of his life on the forty-two gun U.S.S. Constitution, planning his attack on Tripolian pirates. The men of the gunboat that he commanded gave their lives trying to destroy the enemy’s fleet. They had fortitude, just like the thousands of men and women of this town who followed in their footsteps.
Everyone knows about the battle of Lexington and Concord and where it began, but not too many people are aware that the battle ended in what is now Somerville, after 42 Minutemen died. Most people know where the Battle of Bunker Hill began but not too many people are aware that it raged on well into East Somerville. The construction of the Bunker Hill Monument, honoring the participants in that first real battle of the revolution which had over 1,500 causalities, was completed in 1842. While talking about Charlestown’s famous monument, we can’t overlook Somerville’s two famous monuments. Firstly, the Powder House Monument has a 42-inch plaque explaining its history as a windmill and powder–house arsenal, which the British attacked on September 1, 1774. This incident predated Lexington and Concord by eight months. General Washington, who would take over the newly formed colonial army ten months later, was 42 years old at the time. Washington was the standard of fortitude. He led our troops to victory during the revolution and was our first President. Hundreds of streets, schools and people have honored his name. The most obvious examples would be Washington, D.C., the American Capitol, and Washington State (the 42nd state). The second-most visible Somerville monument is the 42-foot tall Prospect Hill Monument which commemorates the first American flag raising and the birth of the Continental Army. This event, in the presence of General Washington, took place on January 1, 1776.
If you live on the north side of Winter Hill, then you live in the four-two section of the city; that is, Ward 4, Precinct 2. This was the polling place where a young student named Barack Obama lived while attending college. His address was 365 Broadway where he lived between 1989 and 1992 while attending Harvard. Little did he know then that he would one day become the President of the United States, the 42nd man to preside in that office after George Washington.
Somerville’s dimensions are 4 miles at its longest by 2 miles at its widest and is located on the 42nd parallel. It covers an area of 4.2 square miles. Now that’s “42” ude and fortitude!