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Dogtown in Cape Ann, MA | Abandoned Settlement Mystery

Dogtown in Cape Ann, MA | Abandoned Settlement Mystery
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Blueberry Highway, Dogtown, 1931; oil on composition board, by Marsden Hartley. Hartley isn't alone in claiming Dogtown as a source of inspiration. Artists and writers before and after him, including John Sloan and Henry David Thoreau -- who described a landscape of rocks "as though they had rained down, on every side" -- have been drawn to this five-square-mile site. More recently Anita Diamant based her 2005 novel on its former inhabitants. Hear her discuss The Last Days of Dogtown and view more photos of Dogtown. Blueberry Highway, Dogtown, 1931; oil on composition board, by Marsden Hartley. Hartley isn’t alone in claiming Dogtown as a source of inspiration. Artists and writers before and after him, including John Sloan and Henry David Thoreau — who described a landscape of rocks “as though they had rained down, on every side” — have been drawn to this five-square-mile site. More recently Anita Diamant based her 2005 novel on its former inhabitants. Hear her discuss The Last Days of Dogtown and view more photos of Dogtown.

DON’T MISS: Photos of the mysterious abandoned settlement, Dogtown.

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.

Soon it started to rain — big, hard drops that arrived without wind or other warning. Lightning flashed; wood cracked. I took shelter beneath a boulder, huge and angled in such a way that I could only hope it wouldn’t roll. After half an hour, the shower let up. The spot where my back had touched the rock was dry, the surface oddly flat. As it grew lighter I could see block letters carved into the granite: “If work stops values decay.”

I picked up my bag to head back. The woods were rain-slicked now, and heavy. Nothing looked familiar. I made several turns onto ever-smaller trails that crisscrossed and looped, before realizing I was lost. It began to rain again. Eventually I made my way out — not to where I’d entered, but to a place that let me loop the perimeter and locate my truck. Hours had passed. I was bug-bitten and soaked. I was also determined to come again — next time with a better map and a clearer sense, at least in physical terms, of what it was I hoped to find.

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Dogtown maps were easy to obtain, it turned out, but reliable information less so. Ascertaining what happened there centuries ago is tricky. Some folks want to embellish it, others to deny it — the accounts therefore larger or smaller than the truth. Yet certain facts converge: Homesteaders first put down roots in what was then known as the Commons Settlement during the mid-1600s. Although the village lacked tillable land, it drew people because its elevated location made it less vulnerable to attack. The place had plenty of pastureland, too, plus a brook that powered a sawmill. In 1719, a general land distribution for men expanded the population; by the mid-1700s, as many as 100 families lived and worked in the Commons area.

Life there was stable until after the Revolutionary War, when a revival of fishing triggered a shift back toward Gloucester Harbor. The area fell on hard times after the demise of the original settlement: “Dogtown became an aberration, an embarrassment,” wrote Thomas Dresser in Dogtown: A Village Lost in Time. He described one inhabitant, Tammy Younger, as “queen of the witches,” who so intimidated passersby that they left her tithes of fish and corn. By 1828 the village was all but deserted. The last resident, a freed slave named Cornelius Finson, was found with his feet frozen and taken to the poorhouse in the winter of 1830.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

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One Response to Dogtown in Cape Ann, MA | Abandoned Settlement Mystery

  1. Sandra October 9, 2014 at 6:33 pm #

    Since I am an artist, I was a fan of Marsden Hartley’s art. I enjoyed this article very much. Thank you.

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