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Dogtown in Cape Ann, MA | Abandoned Settlement Mystery

Dogtown in Cape Ann, MA | Abandoned Settlement Mystery
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Finding Dogtown

In Massachusetts, take Route 128 north to Grant Circle, a traffic rotary, in Gloucester, and turn north on Route 127 (Washington Street), toward Annisquam. In one mile, take a right on Reynaud Street and follow it to the end. Bear left on Cherry Street and turn almost immediately into the entrance to Dogtown, up a steep drive on the right. Public parking is available on both sides of Dogtown Road before the gates. For guided-tour information and reservations, contact Seania McCarthy and Dee McCanus at 978-546-8122, walkthewords.com.

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In 1931, after more than three decades spent wandering this continent and Europe, the painter and poet Marsden Hartley arrived in Gloucester, Massachusetts, for the summer and fall. Nomadic by nature, Hartley was nonetheless exhausted when he settled into his guest house on Eastern Point. He spent several weeks sunning himself and recuperating, and then turned his attention to a lonely tract of boulder-strewn land in Cape Ann’s central uplands.

That place was Dogtown, known for its less-than-hospitable terrain and its history as a once-prosperous village turned rural ghetto. In what would eventually become a celebrated series of paintings, Hartley began rendering the Dogtown landscape. “A sense of eeriness pervades all the place,” Hartley would later write. “[It is] forsaken and majestically lovely, as if nature had at last formed one spot where she can live for herself alone.” Yet Hartley’s Dogtown work is imbued with spirit–of nature, yes, but also of the people who lived there once, and of the painter himself, who was born in Maine and who found in these paintings reconciliation with his roots. “What a distinguished spot my Dogtown is,” Hartley wrote in a letter to the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. “I could work in it for a lifetime.”

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There’s something ineffable about this 3,600-acre tract of juniper, bog, and granite — a quality that Hartley, whose powerful, primal paintings of the place include Rock Doxology, described as mystical. Still, to visit Dogtown can be to see one’s expectations confounded. It’s not a place that offers itself up easily. There are few signs, no storyboards, no tourist pamphlets. Paths end abruptly, sometimes in dense brush. Visitors in search of homogenized entertainment will be disappointed. Yet, in withholding its secrets while beckoning visitors again and again, perhaps Dogtown ensures that eventual discoveries will be that much more satisfying.

For all its difficulty, Dogtown has always had its devotees: history and nature lovers along with the artists, as well as people who go there for “the Dogtown feel,” as one walker near Whale’s Jaw, a two-part boulder formation, put it. Those numbers seem to be on the rise. At The Bookstore in downtown Gloucester, clerk and local poet Patrick Doud says that visitors frequently stop in looking for maps and materials, many of which play up the site as a ghost town. According to Suzanne Silveira, director of tourism for the city of Gloucester, Dogtown also draws geocachers, who, fittingly, search the woods for hidden objects using GPS tracking systems.

Ted Tarr, a Rockport resident who leads tours of Dogtown, reports that he sees more people hiking there than ever before. Tarr should know: He’s been visiting Dogtown regularly for almost 60 years, having first become acquainted with it as a boy on Sunday botany walks. One tour Tarr led, in September 2006, drew nearly 60 people — after which he vowed not to do another unless he had help. “I couldn’t handle it,” he said. “Nobody could hear. Nobody could see.”

Despite the increase in visitors, it’s still possible to spend an entire morning in Dogtown without seeing another person. I began walking there a few years ago — a friend had told me about its mysterious atmosphere. The name, she said, originated from the packs of dogs living wild there after the village was deserted almost two centuries ago. That summer was a time of personal difficulty for me, and the thought of exploring a remote and mysterious place was appealing — not least because it afforded, at least temporarily, the chance to escape inner landscapes that were all too familiar.

That first visit, I expected antiquity — signs of abandoned domesticity. Instead there were gravel pits and an abundance of blueberries. The air smelled briny; beach roses added a high note. I’d been told to watch for cellar holes, but even with a map they proved difficult to find in the rocky woods. When I finally located one, I stepped inside and waited for a Dogtown mood. Nothing came. Shots from a nearby rifle range punctuated the quiet.

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