In 2016 the Friends of Dogtown (FoD) developed a draft document describing its vision for Dogtown. This article presents an updated version of this vision based on several developments over the past few years.
A Brief History
Once cloaked in primeval forest, the hunting grounds of Native Americans, the middle of Cape Ann was cleared for its timber during colonial times. Half a century after the town of Gloucester was settled, people began to live in what was originally called the Commons Settlement, named for the thousand or so acres of common or community woodland out of which it grew. At its peak, more than forty families lived in the Commons. 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 downtown 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.
When Dogtown was abandoned, its mystery and the uniqueness of its natural communities were enhanced rather than diminished. Abandoned farmland on thin acidic soils reverted not to forest but to moorland offering bushels of blueberries in summer and a riot of scarlet huckleberry foliage in fall. The remnants of the historic settlement – 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; and renowned natural historian John Kieran wrote of its birds and orchids.
In the early 20th century, Cape Ann philanthropist, Roger Babson mapped what remained of the old settlement, and later himself become a part of the history of Dogtown. In response to a city-wide water shortage, the Babson Reservoir was built on land made available to the City by Babson and his family in 1930. Dotting this rocky landscape is his enduring legacy – inspirational words and phrases chiseled into boulders by unemployed quarrymen during the Great Depression – the Babson Boulders. A second reservoir was created near Goose Cove in the 1960s. Together both watersheds comprise approximately 75% of the total land area of historical Dogtown. It can be argued that Dogtown exists to the extent that it does today largely due to the watershed that was created with the construction of these two reservoirs.
By the mid-1980s Dogtown had become a public safety problem for the City. Illegal dumping, civil disturbances, and a general state of lawlessness prevailed. In 1984 representatives of the Essex County Greenbelt Association, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and the City of Gloucester organized the Dogtown Steering Committee to deal with two key problems facing Dogtown: the threat of development and land management. In the following year, the City acquired critically situated land for conservation. A number of public safety actions were taken by the Police Department and the Department of Public Works (DPW). Click here to see the original 1985 Dogtown management plan. The Dogtown Advisory Committee (DAC) was established in 1985 as an ad hoc committee reporting to the Mayor of Gloucester, staffed by volunteers appointed by the Mayor and tasked with implementing other recommendations of the Steering Committee including clean-up activities, trail maintenance, installation of trail markers, and the creation of a map.
Several years before the DAC was organized, the City acquired a parcel on Dogtown Road known as “Gronblad’s Pit.” In 1991, the DPW persuaded Gloucester’s Conservation Commission to allow temporary use of the land for composting, with assurances that once a landfill in West Gloucester was closed and capped, the operation in Dogtown would be terminated and operations transferred to West Gloucester. Almost three decades later, the City continues to use the land for composting and has expanded its operation to an adjacent parcel that it uses as a dump for large trees and stumps. What had been a temporary solution for waste recycling has become a permanent eyesore with runoff flowing into a nearby freshwater spring, stream, and acidic fen that contains three species of orchids, one of them on the state endangered species list.
Over time Oriental Honeysuckle, Multiflora Rose, Oriental Bittersweet, and other invasive plants have created dense thickets and tangles that destroy healthy trees and prevents the succession of native species. A build-up of dead trees and other combustible materials in many parts of Dogtown contribute to fire risk during what appear to be extended dry spells that are occurring with greater frequency as patterns of climate change become more extreme.
A Vision for the Future
The City of Gloucester has recently dissolved the ad hoc DAC and created a new permanent City commission known as the Dogtown Preservation Commission (DPC) that has been tasked with developing a management plan for Dogtown. The following sections describe an updated version of a vision originally developed by the Friends of Dogtown, which could serve as guiding principles in the management of Dogtown.
In an attempt to recognize and preserve Dogtown as a national historic site the Gloucester Historical Commission (GHS) proposed that Dogtown be included in the National Register (NR) of Historic Places – the official list of national historic places worthy of preservation. Click here to access two documents prepared by the Public Archaeology Laboratory. In the spring of 2019, the City Council rejected the NR nomination fearing that Gloucester would lose control of Dogtown. Some also felt that the NR status would attract large numbers of tourists who would require parking and other services that would stress the local community.
As a result of the failed nomination, there is no official recognition of Dogtown’s historical, cultural, and ecological significance. That together with a lack of conservation protection in certain key areas leave them open to continued misuse by the DPW and future commercial development.
A part of the charter of the newly formed DPC is to explore options to purchase and increase the level of protection of as much contiguous land as possible in and around Dogtown. Much of Dogtown is protected by virtue of the watershed; however, there are areas that could be developed should the City or other landowners decide to do so and so require increased protection in the form of conservation restrictions. These areas include parcels along Dogtown Road purchased with the State of Massachusetts Self Help funds, woodlots above Common Road and a number of properties north of the historical area.
Many believe that the management of Dogtown should not be left just to the City of Gloucester but should be a collaboration between all stakeholders private and public. A source of concern is the City’s continued misuse of two parcels for its compost facility and stump dump that are located on conservation land. Greenbelt, who holds over 240 conservation restrictions that permanently protect 6,700 acres of land that are owned by private individuals, municipalities, or organizations, could be an excellent partner to help the City of Gloucester and the Town of Rockport together manage and protect Dogtown.
Many citizens rely on the compost facility as a place to bring their leaves and brush but far fewer use the compost that is produced there. As the volume of processed and unprocessed material continues to increase the facility has effectively become a dump for yard waste. In 2018, a preliminary study was performed by the DAC and presented to the Mayor to identify options for dealing with this problem in a sustainable way including phasing out the compost facility by outsourcing the collection of organic materials over the next decade or so.
In the meantime, the DAC with the help of volunteers from the Cape Ann Trail Stewards (CATS) and FoD began the remediation of the stump dump. The DAC paid several thousand dollars to have the trees removed to a private landfill. As the frequency of severe storms is likely to increase the City will continue to face the problem of where to dump downed trees. Perhaps the City can partner with local landscapers and tree services who can cut up and sell the trees as cordwood and mulch so that stumps and other debris do not have to be dumped in Dogtown.
The landscape of today’s Dogtown would not be recognizable to a person from the past. Pre-contact Native Americans inhabited a vast forest with many hardwood species that are rare or missing in today’s successional forest. Early colonists would remember rolling pastures and farms dotted with glacial erratics. As these pastures began slowly to revert back to a natural state that had its own charm they inspired many great artists, poets, and thinkers of the past century who knew an even different Dogtown.
Could some of these past landscapes in selected areas in Dogtown be restored through limited land management activities? One initiative that has been proposed would involve the restoration of a part of Dogtown to the early successional habitat (heathland/moorland, native grassland) that prevailed during most of the historical period using techniques such as mowing, grazing and prescribed burning. This is the landscape captured in paintings by Hartley and Sloan. It has also been suggested that when the compost area and stump dump are finally closed the area could be restored to a field of native grasses similar to what existed there up until the early 20th century. Restoration activities could also reduce fire risk and increase ecological diversity including the return of blueberries in selected parts of Dogtown.
Although Dogtown is under the jurisdiction of Gloucester’s DPW, stewardship has been mostly a volunteer activity. Besides the efforts of many conscientious individuals, CATS, Clean Gloucester, and other organizations organize regular litter and trash cleanups, cut and clear brush, mark and maintain trails, and perform many other “boots on the ground” activities that the City does not have the resources to perform. Hopefully, over time the DPC will help the City to become an equal partner in the care and maintenance of Dogtown.
As part of its educational outreach, the FoD received funding from the Awesome Gloucester Foundation in 2017 to develop an app for navigation through Dogtown’s complex network of trails and to learn about the many places of historical and cultural interest. Other apps including iNaturalist are used by citizen scientists to collect data about rare and endangered species of birds, insects, and plants.
In order to further enhance our experience and understanding of the geology, ecology, and archaeology of Dogtown the creation of an educational center in the area currently occupied by the compost facility has been proposed. The fear that such a place would become a visitor center and attract large numbers of tourists caused the DAC and City to withdraw the idea of any kind of center in Dogtown. Such a decision may, however, be a missed opportunity to create a special place in the woods that could serve as a focal point for on-going outdoor recreational and educational activities that enhance our enjoyment, knowledge, and appreciation of Dogtown and all that it has to offer.
Featured photo: John Sloan, Dogtown Valley in the Sun (1916). Courtesy Kraushaar Galleries