The Fate of Three Places in Dogtown: A Cautionary Tale

Some people believe that Dogtown should be left alone – to continue to exist unmanaged in its natural state. For much of its history after it was abandoned in the mid-1800s and became a municipal property, Dogtown has been left largely unmanaged by the City of Gloucester.

Gloucester’s earliest historical period is the time before Dogtown when the Commons Settlement, one of the town’s first settlements, was established in the middle of Cape Ann. This article discusses what happened to the remains of three homes dating back to this early period in Gloucester’s history that were important places referenced in the literature of Dogtown.

A stone marker with the number “15” is on the left across the road from a house that was once up this hill on the south side of Dogtown Road.

The Stanwood House, Dogtown Road

Not to be confused with Morgan Stanwood, who lived at “29” or Nehemiah Stanwood, who lived at “S”, the house located at “15” on Roger Babson’s map of Dogtown was probably built by James Stanwood sometime after his father John had received one of the 1688 Gloucester land grants. From genealogy data, we learn that James married Mary Davis, and had a daughter Mary in 1719. According to research by Riverdale resident Tristram Griffin, later occupants of the Stanwood house included Joseph Clark Jr., son of Joseph Clark Sr., who lived down the road at “9” and Isaac Davis, who married Stanwood’s daughter. They, in turn, had a daughter Mary Davis, who was born in 1745. 

In The Story of Dogtown Charles Mann tells us that this was a two-story house. It is therefore likely that Joseph Clark Jr., who died in 1739 lived upstairs from James and Mary Stanwood until his death. Later, when James and Mary Stanwood’s daughter Mary married Isaac Davis, they might have moved upstairs for a while and then back downstairs after Mary’s parents passed away. After their daughter Mary married Nathaniel Day, the Davises probably lived in the house until they died.

According to Charles Mann, Easter Carter’s house was the only two-story house in Dogtown. At some point in time, the second floor was occupied by “Old Ruth” also known as John Woodman, a freed slave who built many of the stone walls in the area. Although there are no photos or sketches of Carter’s house it may have been similar to this two-story house in Riverdale known as “The Castle” that was built by Anthony Bennett sometime between 1688 and 1691.(Photo courtesy Bill Noble)

The next known resident was Easter Carter, who according to Mann was still living in 1833. Little is known of the history of the house between the mid-1700s and the early 1800s as it is not known when Easter Carter, who was from England, was born, or when Mary and Isaac Davis died.

It is possible that Easter Carter, who was living in Lanesville prior to moving to Dogtown either purchased the house or rented it from the Davis family. This is a particularly interesting period in Gloucester’s history when those living in the middle of the Cape began to move to the harbor. Some have speculated that it is possible that the shift in the demographic from owners to renters might have had something to do with the beginning of the slow decline of this part of town over the next half-century.

After Easter Carter passed away, Becky Smith, who was living at “2” on the Back Road (today’s Cherry Street), moved in. After she died, her daughter Rachel Smith became the last known occupant of the house. At the end of its long history, the home had become a “roadhouse” with an unsavory reputation for dancing, frivolity, fortune-telling, and other things.

Long after the house was torn down, being one of the few houses in Dogtown without a root cellar, the hill on which the house stood became a gravel pit.

Archaeological excavations at a number of cellars in Dogtown have revealed a great deal about the inhabitants that could not be otherwise known; e.g., what sort of items did they own, were they rich or poor, etc. We will never know any more about the inhabitants of the Stanwood house – some of Dogtown’s most famous (and infamous) characters – as the land on which it was built is gone.

The Clark House, Dogtown Road

Just past the gate and sign “Historic Dogtown,” a stone with a “9” inscribed on it marks the location of the Clark cellar. In the June 1874 issue of Atlantic Monthly, Gloucester poet Hiram Rich published a poem commemorating the heroism of a person that Rich thought was Morgan Stanwood who was killed fighting the British in the Battle of Gloucester, a key battle in the Revolutionary War. 

The setting of the poem was Stanwood’s home but as it turned out, Rich was confused on two points – the hero was Peter Lurvey, not Morgan Stanwood, and the home was not Morgan Stanwood’s (cellar #28 on Common Road) or even Peter Lurvey’s (cellar #25 on Wharf Road) but Joseph Clark’s. 

Despite the confusion, Rich’s poem is important for its imagery. Click here to read the poem. This poignant stanza describes the tolling of the bell calling Gloucester’s volunteers to action:

Larum bell and rolling drum
Answer sea-borne guns;
Larum bell and rolling drum
Summon Freedom's sons!

Those of us who live in Riverdale on this side of Dogtown can hear much of what happens in Gloucester – from train whistles, to foghorns, to gunshots (from the Cape Ann Sportsman’s Club), and other sounds that reverberate across the middle of the Cape. It is easy to close one’s eyes and picture  this moment back in 1775.

Equally powerful is the imagery of a household interrupted during harvest season

Fallen scythe and aftermath
Lie forgotten now;
Winter need may come and find
But a barren mow.

This part of Dogtown was pastureland. Sheep were raised here. There were haystacks everywhere.

The repeated references to the doorstep in this stanza

Morgan Stanwood, patriot!
Little more is known;
Nothing of his home is left
But the door-step stone.

and here

Morgan Stanwood's roof is gone;
Here the door-step lies;
One may stand thereon and think,—
For the thought will rise,—

Were we where the meadow was,
Mowing grass alone,
Would we go the way he went,
From this very stone?

ties the poem to a real place that one could still visit in Babson’s time:

“This cellar is in the best condition of any in Dogtown and here may be seen the door stone (which has tumbled into the north side of the cellar) immortalized by Hiram Rich…”

The doorstep – the flat stone with the number “9” is all that is left of the Clark cellar. 

It is difficult to understand how the City could have allowed this site to be destroyed. The back of the site, where the hill was, is currently being used by the City to dump large trees and stumps. Located just past the gate and sign marking the entrance the “Historic Dogtown” the Clark doorstep now overlooks the compost area and piles of paper bags filled mostly with yard waste (and some trash) – a scene that is in stark contrast to the imagery of Rich’s poem.

View from the Clark door-step at cellar #9 looking south toward the compost area.

The Hilton House, Common Road

William Hilton built the original house here in the early 1700s that was later occupied by his daughter, Liz Tucker, and her niece, Judy Rhines.

Elizabeth (Liz) Tucker was Thomas Riggs’ great-granddaughter. Thomas Riggs Sr. was Town Clerk of Gloucester for 51 years, a selectman for 20 years, a schoolmaster, and a Representative to the General Court in 1700. His house on Vine Street in Riverdale is the oldest surviving house on Cape Ann. The Riggs family was connected with much of Dogtown as described in The Cellars Speak.

At first, it is not clear why Hilton’s daughter took her mother’s surname. Bu then we learn from genealogy data that Liz married her cousin, Joseph Tucker. Mann tells us in The Story of Dogtown that Liz Tucker and her niece, Judith Ryon, a.k.a. Judy Rhines later lived here together, probably after Joseph Tucker died. Judy was baptized in Sandy Bay on December 30, 1771, and so would have been about fifty years younger than Liz. Although we do not know exactly when she died, Mann tells us Judy was still living in 1830.

After Liz passed away, Mann tells us that their friend, Neil Finson, moved into the house. Sometime after Judy died, the walls of the house collapsed and Neil moved into the cellar. He was the last person to live in Dogtown, dying in a Gloucester poorhouse in the winter of 1830.

In his Cape Ann Tourist’s Guide Roger Babson tells us the location of the site:

“On the left beyond the brook are two cellars (R) and (T) close together, one marking the home of James Marsh. One hundred years later these houses were occupied by Liz Tucker and Judy Rhine’s…”

One can actually visit the area, which is located just off the service road near the continuation of Common Road at the far side of the Goose Cove Reservoir. In the process of building the service road around Goose Cove Reservoir these cellars were covered over with boulders. A long-time resident of Riverdale, Bill Noble, remembers the site, which is now engulfed by trees and choked with vines.

One of the reasons thought for how Dogtown got its name was from the dogs that roamed the countryside following the War, protecting the women who lived here in this isolated part of town. Liz Tucker and Judy Rhine’s were probably two of those women.

A Disturbing Trend

The Carter and Clark cellars are gone but the Rhines/Tucker cellars, which may have inadvertently bulldozed, may still be there buried under rocks and trees waiting to be rediscovered.

Besides the Carter and Clark cellars that have been destroyed there are other places that are threatened in this part of Dogtown. The City continues to use a parcel of land known as “Gronblad’s Pit” that was deeded for conservation purposes as a dump for yard waste (the “compost” area). City operations have expanded in recent years to an adjacent parcel that is used from time to time as a ”stump dump.” Runoff and trash from the compost area flow into a nearby stream and fen that contains rare species of orchids. A spring once used by residents for drinking water is likely contaminated.

A recent ordinance establishing the Dogtown Preservation Commission puts the City’s DPW in charge of developing a management plan for Dogtown. The City’s past performance in managing Dogtown’s historical resources, specifically with respect to the three sites discussed in this article, calls into question whether they can entrusted with protecting Dogtown’s historical heritage in the future.

What is special about the art and literature of Cape Ann is that many of the places referenced still exist. We can go there and draw inspiration from them.

A recent inventory of Dogtown’s historical resources identified dozens of sites of importance. Many are in areas in Dogtown that are not currently protected from future development. As a sign of good faith, the City should take immediate action to permanently protect these areas. Otherwise, the lack of action could be interpreted as a course of action intended to keep all options open, even development.


The top photo was taken before the Goose Cove Reservoir existed. The view is from the Davis cellar in the direction of the Rhines-Tucker cellar. (Photo courtesy Bill Noble)

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