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Dogtown
Location, History, and Legends


Location

Dogtown moraineDogtown is an area in central Gloucester of about five square miles, or 3600 acres, stretching from the Riverdale section of the city, north of Route 128, into Rockport, and including the Goose Cove and the Babson Reservoirs. Development is banned in this protected municipal watershed.

Dogtown is known for its woods and for its boulders and rock formations left behind when the last glaciers melted. Because of the availability of water, in 1642, the Commons Settlement was located here and was for a century the most prosperous part of Gloucester. The half century after the Revolutionary War saw the decline and disappearance of the Dogtown settlement, and today, visitors to Dogtown try to find the numbered boulders which mark the cellar holes of the houses in this “ghost town,” as well other boulders emblazoned with inspirational messages. The poetry of Dogtown is about both its rocks and natural beauty and the lives of its former residents.

Postcard of Dogtown RoadThe famous American artist and poet Marsden Hartley described Dogtown as a cross between Stonehenge and Easter Island. Gloucester’s Roger Babson, the “creator” of modern Dogtown loved both its boulders and forsaken cellars. Today, a network of abandoned roads and trails enable walkers to discover Dogtown. Of course, visitors to Dogtown should always exercise every safety precaution and environmental consideration.

Directions to Dogtown
To reach Dogtown’s outskirts by automobile, from Grant Circle on Route 128 (exit 11), take route 127 North. Within the first mile, take a right on either Dr. Osman Babson Rd. or Reynard St. and proceed up to Cherry St. Take a left and look for Dogtown Rd. on the right. Drive up the paved road to the parking area, and then walk to the end of the paved section of Dogtown Road, past the rifle club and the public works area. Follow the unpaved Dogtown Road to Dogtown Square, and the bear right for the Babson Boulder Trail which is on the right soon thereafter.

History

As many people are interested in Dogtown’s natural history and its geological features as are interested in Dogtown’s economic decline and depression and the people who lived there then.

Roger BabsonAccording to Roger Babson, the founder of Babson College, the history of settlement in Dogtown illustrated the four stages of the business cycle: improvement, prosperity, decline, and depression. Dogtown’s development and prosperity lasted from about 1650 until 1750. During this time, the area was home to Gloucester’s most prominent families, and since it was directly connected by road to all of Cape Ann’s seashore communities, the Commons Settlement, as it was called, was a thriving and successful hub of agriculture, timbering, and transportation.

 

A change in economic conditions after 1750 brought about the decline of the Commons Settlement and the onset of Dogtown. Deforestation, an absence of pirates, and the victory over the British in the Revolutionary War brought the Commons Settlement’s more successful families to the harbor. Their properties were rented, often to the less well-to-do, and sometimes to widows of Revolutionary War soldiers, whose use of dogs for protection and companionship helped coin the name Dogtown. Until 1830, when the last resident of Dogtown, Black Neil, was taken to the poorhouse, the area spiraled downward into a depression. It was during this era that many of the colorful characters that have come to be associated with Dogtown made their impressions on Gloucester history and lore.

Egg Rock LighthouseThe modern twentieth century history of Dogtown is the story of its becoming a natural resource for Gloucester. Naturalist, historian, and philanthropist Roger Babson (1875-1967) is the man most responsible for this. Babson the historian mapped and numbered Dogtown’s cellar holes and inscribed boulders to help locate them, thus creating a natural “theme park”. During the Depression, Babson the philanthropist hired unemployed stonecutters to carve 24 inspirational mottoes on Dogtown boulders, many on the Babson Boulder Trail. Eventually, the Babson family gave Babson Reservoir to the city to ensure an independent water supply, and in return, the city agreed to keep Dogtown an undeveloped public park. Since 1985, the Dogtown Advisory Committee has fought to preserve the natural environment of Dogtown, in the process creating a detailed topographical trail map of Dogtown available at local bookstores.

Postcard of Whale's Jaw

The natural history of Dogtown is responsible for its natural beauty. The most significant event in Dogtown’s natural history was the melting of the glacier thousands of years ago. Tons and tons of rocks and boulders were left behind by the glacier, including an impressive terminal moraine, which can be seen near Dogtown Square and from the Babson Boulder Trail. Sometimes large and unique rock formations called erratics were also left behind. Whale’s Jaw in the northern part of Dogtown is the area’s most famous erratic. Residents of the Commons Settlement used the rocks and boulders in the area to build stone walls and stone cellars for their houses, and of course, Roger Babson used the boulders to mark cellar hole sites and display mottoes for self-improvement. In addition to the rocks and terrain, a variety of plants, wildflowers, and trees contribute to the natural beauty of Dogtown.

Legends

Cellar Hole 15Stories about the lives of the residents of the Commons Settlement and Dogtown abound. Roger Babson’s chapter on Dogtown in his Cape Ann Tourist’s Guide (Gloucester: Cape Ann Community League 1952) and Thomas Dresser’s Dogtown: A Village Lost in Time (Franconia NH: Thorn Books 1995) provide detailed and interesting sketches of many of these residents.

During the Revolution, the Commons Settlement produced two heroes. Isaac Dade (cellar hole 18) escaped impressment on a British ship to fight in three battles and be badly wounded at the Battle of Yorktown. Peter Lurvey (cellar hole 25) became Gloucester’s most celebrated Minuteman in August 1775, when the British ship “Falcon” sailed into Gloucester harbor. Lurvey quit working in his field and ran to the harbor recruiting comrades along the way. The “Falcon” was driven out to sea, but Lurvey was killed in the action. Over a century later, his heroism was the subject of a poem by Gloucester’s banker-poet Hiram Rich.

Dogtown Square boulder markerAfter the Revolution, when the Commons Settlement became known as Dogtown, two among many legendary figures emerged: Judith Rhines and Tammy Younger, “witches” behaving badly during the depressed decades of Dogtown in the 1800’s. The notorious activities of both sparked the imaginations of Percy MacKaye, whose long narrative poem Dogtown Common (New York: MacMillan 1921) explores a fictional romance between Judith Rhines and minister John Wharf, and Francis Blessington, whose 2001 novel, The Last Witch of Dogtown (Gloucester: Curious Traveler Press) tells of the transformation of the fictional Ganther Halliday by Rhines and Younger. Judith Rhines is also the central figure in best-selling author Anita Diamant's The Last Days of Dogtown (New York: Scribner 2005), a novel in which Tammy Younger is also present.   And both Rhines and Younger are included in Elyssa East's non-fiction Dogtown: Death and Disenchantment in New England Ghost Town (New York: Free Press 2009).

Finally, there is James Merry who became a Dogtown legend in 1892, long after Dogtown ceased to exist. At 60, he still believed he could wrestle to the ground a bull he had been raising for three years. He had performed the feat in years past, but this time the bull was too much for him and he died in Dogtown of his injuries. The poet Charles Olson was drawn to the Merry legend, some say because both were very tall and broad, and Olson used the legend to anchor his long poem “Maximus from Dogtown – 1.”

Cellar Hole 18 markerToday, since Dogtown is a ghost town, visitors can touch the lives of those who once lived there by finding numbered boulders marking cellar holes and recalling Dogtown stories. In this fashion, all residents of the Commons Settlement and Dogtown whose cellar holes are marked have become legendary.