Step Into The Past In Dogtown

September 29, 2022 / A Local Favorite, Good to Know, History/Maritime, Outdoor Adventures, Things to Do & See

Step Into the Past in Dogtown | Gloucester Writers Center

A “ghost town,” most sources call it. But once you set foot in Dogtown, you’ll see just how alive it really is—with flora and fauna, history and mystery.


Photo taken at Dogtown Books by Kendra Dott

Spanning thousands of acres at the heart of Cape Ann, Dogtown—like the rest of Gloucester—sits on the traditional and ancestral homelands of the Pawtucket people and their neighbors, the Massachusett, Nipmuck, Penacook, and Wampanoag tribes. It’s a wooded area with plentiful wetlands, strewn with boulders left behind the last time glaciers passed through here. Trails criss-cross the five-square-miles of the reserve, on which all development is currently forbidden. In the fall, changing foliage and autumn’s cool, shadowy light create a dramatic, deep-hued backdrop for exploration. Green lichen flickers on gray rock. Pick up a trail map downtown at the aptly named Dogtown Books (or download one from Essex Heritage), and then navigate toward Dogtown’s entrance on Cherry Street in Gloucester to begin your hike. Bring sturdy shoes: the crunch of fall leaves gives way under the canopy to occasional slick spots; some paths are rocky and more advanced than others, but most are well-labeled on available maps!


Wandering Dogtown’s trails also brings us somewhere else—back into time. Because this seemingly empty landscape was once, in fact, a town—or at least a settlement. Staked out by colonists in the 17th century, the Commons Settlement (Dogtown, as a name, came much later) soon became home to a small, active community living inland from the harbor. Some forty modest houses were built here, inhabited by folks like Englishman Isaac Dade, who deserted the British Army during the American Revolution, and then found himself plying the Delaware with one George Washington. Later, when he came to Dogtown, animals grazed in the common fields, and people made their living farming and felling timber.


And yet in the decades following the Revolution, people started to leave. Fishing, trade and other industries began to flourish down at the harbor, and by the early decades of the 19th century, the Common Settlement was all but abandoned. (For a while, people still brought their animals to graze here.) Those forty known houses would disintegrate with time, leaving only their cellar holes behind for us to peer into and wonder—with curiosity for history, and perhaps a shiver of spookiness—what stories they know. Stone walls, crumbled, and old roads, overgrown but passable on foot, remain, too. 


Early in the 20th century, some of the glacial boulders got a makeover. Roger Babson (1875–1967), member of a prominent Gloucester family and founder of Babson College, began hiring out-of-work quarrymen to carve things both inspiring (“Integrity”) and moralizing (“Be on time”) onto them. To find these marked boulders, walk from the Cherry Street lot through the gate and continue past the compost area on the right for fifteen minutes or so. Babson also researched and marked the cellar holes, and the first boulders to appear will bear numbers, pointing the cellars out. When you see #18, head right. With the thinning leaves, the boulders and cellar holes should be easier to spot. 


In its last years, Dogtown acquired a reputation that persists—as a place of desolation, hauntedness, even misery. (It’s said that one late resident crawled beneath a rock in his cellar to die.) Elderly, often war-widowed women who remained there found themselves accused of witchcraft—their dogs became, perhaps, the source of the area’s name today. (After your hike, you can scratch your history itch at the Sawyer Free Library or the archives of the Cape Ann Museum, where books and documents on Dogtown’s history abound.)


Artists and writers have flocked to Dogtown for its strange landscape, mystery, and now-legendary past for more than a century. Marsden Hartley, a great modern painter, came here and captured the surreal landscape of boulders—a great example of which is in the Cape Ann Museum collection. Writers from Henry David Thoreau to Charles Olson, Jonathan Bayliss and Vincent Ferrini have all memorialized its landscape and its atmosphere. And that tradition continues with many writers in Gloucester today. Bring a notebook, record your impressions: is there a poem or story for you here? 


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