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The Island Woods of Cape Ann

Most people naturally associate Cape Ann - the other cape along the Massachusetts coast, with the sea, with seafood restaurants, scenic vistas, sailing, scuba diving, and surfing. Few are aware of the mysteries that lie hidden in the middle of the Cape. Hiking through the woods one encounters all kinds of interesting things: gigantic boulders, rock walls, stone foundations, collapsed wells, abandoned quarries, old roads and more. Covered by bittersweet and cat briar, much of the interior has been undisturbed for hundreds of years.

The coastline of Cape Ann with its quaint shops, sandy beaches, and ocean vistas is well known to tourists and residents alike. Less known are the inland woods - a vast unsettled area stretching from Lanesville south to Blackburn Circle, from Riverdale east to Rockport. For here are the remains of a colonial settlement that became known as Dogtown in its latter days, old quarries now popular (but private) swimming holes, and "word rocks" scattered about the rocky terrain telling us how to live our lives. All of this connected by a maze of old roads and trails whose origins can be traced to colonial times (perhaps even earlier) but still confuse and confound even the most experienced hiker.

Commons Settlement and Dogtown
Today, much of the population lives less than a mile from the coast. Yet, at one time, there was a small village in the middle of the Cape. Half a century after the town of Gloucester was first settled, people began to live in the Commons Settlement, named for the thousand or so acres of common woodland out of which it grew. At its peak, more than forty families lived in this part of town. Then, around the time of the Revolutionary War, the village began to decline as commercial interests shifted from logging and agriculture to fishing and trading, and people moved to be closer to the harbor. Houses were rented and fell into disrepair. By the early 1800s, the area, which had become known as Dogtown, was a ghost town.

After Dogtown was abandoned its mystery and uniqueness grew. Abandoned farms reverted to moorland and scenic vistas of boulders and blueberries. The remnants of the historic settlement - its stone walls, cellar holes, and old roads - far from detracting from Dogtown's mystique, combined with its monumental geology and diverse vegetation to attract the attention of poets, painters, historians, and naturalists a century later. Dogtown appears as a prominent element in the poetry of Charles Olson and in the haunting paintings of Marsden Hartley, John Sloan and other artists. Charles Mann, Percy MacKaye and others told the stories of the last generation to inhabit the site.

eGuide Dogtown offers visitors a self-guided tour of Dogtown's cultural and natural history, folklore, and literature. The app shows a user's location as he or she walks along the old roads and trails of Dogtown, along with numerous placemarks at key locations in Dogtown. Tapping a placemark provides information related to that location in Dogtown. In effect the app functions much like a trail guide or docent at a museum, without need of any other external device other than a smartphone.

Other resources useful in exploring this part of Gloucester include the The Dogtown Common Trail Guide, and the book, The Dogtown Guide.

The Cellars Speak describes the early settlement that later become Dogtown in greater detail.

Quarries, Boulders, and Reservoirs
The decline of Dogtown was followed by the rise of the granite quarries to the north in Lanesville, Bayview, and Pigeon Cove. Gloucester-born businessman and economist Roger Babson offered his opinion of this cycle of change:

"to a certain extent some part of every city, some phase of every industry, and some branch of every family is experiencing the same four periods of improvement, prosperity, decline and depression, as have occurred in this village of Dogtown. Furthermore, every community and industry is now in one of these four periods and some day may experience all of the other periods."

Cape Ann quarries operated for more than a century beginning in the early 1800s, but they too declined for economic reasons as asphalt and concrete began to replace granite for roads and buildings.

Enormous boulders dot the landscape of the inland woods. Some like Whale's Jaw have a special significance all their own. In his own Depression-era civil works project, Babson hired unemployed quarrymen to carve words and phrases like "Kindness" and "Prosperity Follows Service" in boulders scattered on his land at south end of Dogtown. In response to a water shortage in 1930, Babson and his family gave this land to the City of Gloucester to create the first island reservoir. The creation of the Babson Reservoir in 1932, the Goose Cove Reservoir in the early 1960s, together with their vast watershed, is the reason Dogtown exists today.

The Island Woods describes how Dogtown, the quarries, and reservoirs are connected in space and time, exploring these connections with maps, satellite imagery, and historical photographs.

Poles Hill
Poles Hill is rocky plateau on the island adjacent to the Annisquam River. Archaeological finds at nearby Riverview indicate the area was occupied by native people over a considerable period of time from the middle Archaic to some time after the English settlement was established in Gloucester in the 1630s. In 2014 Mary Ellen Lepionka and Mark Carlotto discovered that Native American people constructed a solar observatory atop Poles Hill 2000 to 4000 years ago. The observatory consists of four large boulders: a central observational reference stone called the "gnomon" surrounded by three markers located at the summer solstice sunrise, summer solstice sunset, and winter solstice sunrise.

Friends of Dogtown

Cape Ann Sunday Morning Hikes

Cape Ann Trail Stewards

Essex County Greenbelt Association

Report observations of plants and animals in Dogtown

Report problems that you encounter in Dogtown

Developing a Manangement Program for Dogtown

Seania McCarthy's Dogtown Tours

© 2008-2017 Mark J. Carlotto