GLOUCESTER — Take a sharp right just before the municipal compost heap at the top of Dogtown Road and you’re on the right path, as unlikely as it seems — a path that leads through the woods, over tree root and stone, to somewhere that feels not of this earth. It was probably inevitable that Dogtown Common, a rocky sprawl spanning 3,600 acres between Rockport and Gloucester, would always feel haunted, a no-man’s land where any life would need to carve itself into cold granite to survive. It’s probably for the best that Dogtown, home to 100 families 300 or so years ago, is no more. It’s probably why a walk here today can leave you feeling less at one with nature than under silent threat. It’s the kind of place that seems, at any moment, like it could swallow you whole.
Was it that sense of simmering menace, of a town that thrived, withered, and left behind its ghosts, that drew Marsden Hartley to paint this place in the 1930s? If not that, it was surely the stark difference that its denuded expanse of granite offered next to the picturesque harbors and coves that enchanted a generation of artists before him. The soft summer light of Cape Ann was made immortal in the 1840s by Fitz Henry Lane, the beloved Luminist and Gloucester native, in his wake drawing such luminaries as Winslow Homer and Childe Hassam. In the Rocky Neck community on Smith’s Cove, in Hartley’s time, a cluster of fishing shacks was being briskly repurposed as studios for a new generation of Modern painters, his natural artistic kin.
Hartley had spent his life wandering — a “world hound,” as he called himself — and that restlessness ran through his work. Maybe it was the simple fact that the Mainer in him never fully yielded, despite years in close orbit to Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery, center of the early 20th century’s budding New York Modern art scene (that much we know: Hartley abandoned it all in his later years to become the “painter of Maine,” in his own words, until his death in 1943). Something in him — a loner and wanderer by nature, maybe, or an individualism born of his northern soul — wanted a place all his own.
Hartley first stopped in Cape Ann in 1920. At 43, Hartley’s bona fides in the canon of American Modernism were well-established. He wouldn’t be back for more than a decade, most of it spent in Europe, but he returned with a singular mission. On that first trip, Dogtown had been stamped in his memory, “a place so original in its appearance as not to be duplicated either in New England or anywhere else,” he wrote. He also saw it as a claim to be staked. “I had remembered the rocks and the name Dogtown — that’s a great name,” he wrote, “and in all the years of Gloucester painting celebrity no one has ever done anything about Dogtown.”
That wasn’t exactly true — John Sloan, of the Ashcan school, had painted its scrubby brush and rough boulder fields some years before, and Stuart Davis, in his early years, looks to have at least painted around its edges. But none embraced the disarming strangeness of Dogtown quite like Hartley. He was smitten. In 1931 and ’34, he sketched incessantly, capturing in scratchy ink the stone vice of Whale’s Jaw, a rock formation that appeared like giant, leviathan mandibles, or using soft charcoal to draw the collapsed stone walls of old houses.
His paintings, filled with bulky stone forms softened and dimpled like flesh, captured the strange bleakness of a place that feels bleached out and solemn under even the bluest of skies. Ancient and forbidding, Dogtown is a place where dark mystery reigns. As summer turned to autumn, the determined scrub growing from rock would turn a fiery orange, coming “the closest to music that I have ever seen,” Hartley wrote.
He even wrote poetry about the place. It was, to him, “the speechless progression of geologic structures on earth.” His “Soliloquy in Dogtown,” which became the name of an exhibition at the Cape Ann Museum in 2012, brims with reverent awe at a place where he could “sit a spell, clutching at plain thoughts, wrenching at/no secrecies, hearing the magnificat/of afternoons and mornings united in their themes.”
Hartley would eventually forsake his worldly experience for the remoteness of his home state. But if there was another place bound so tightly to his soul, it was Dogtown. His poem “Return of the Native” was written not about Maine, but for his first exhibition of Dogtown paintings in the early ’30s, five years before his final retreat north. He would eventually come to say: “Dogtown is mine.”
The truth, though, was that Dogtown was a place ever in flux, and Hartley’s connection just a blip on its long, strange continuum. Hartley himself lived to see it. The Dogtown Hartley came to see in 1931 was drastically changed from 1920, with the deep chasm at the bottom of its boulder-strewn slopes flooded with dark waters. Roger Babson, whose family owned large tracts of Cape Ann for generations, had sold more than 1,000 acres to the town for a reservoir.
In 1933, Babson would undertake another public-minded project of his own imagining. On the massive boulders scattered on the slopes leading away from the reservoir, Babson hired stone masons (left jobless by the Great Depression) to carve what he hoped would be uplifting messages. Best intentions feel awfully lost in the decidedly creepy stonework that now peeks out from thick undergrowth and forest — slogans like USE YOUR HEAD and KEEP OUT OF DEBT, or inscriptions of single words such as: COURAGE, TRUTH, and INDUSTRY.
Picking my way up the trail above the reservoir one recent afternoon, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was trapped in a bad M. Night Shyamalan movie (which, after “The 6th Sense,” was pretty much all of them). It felt like I might be abducted by aliens, or jumped by the descendants of an ancient village for whom the stones were idols of pagan belief. Hartley, for what it’s worth, wasn’t much of a fan: “Dogtown is no longer in its original state,” he wrote, on his return in 1934, calling the inscriptions “an invention of the worst sort.” He never painted them, for obvious reasons, choosing instead to pretend they weren’t there.
On my visit, the frequent crack of gunfire from the nearby shooting range added to the dread. I got chills every time I happened upon the occasional campsite (all abandoned, thankfully) while threading through the woods on trails that spidered in every direction. I came across an older couple, out for a daily stroll, who explained that, from here, one trail or another could get you anywhere on Cape Ann — but be careful, because they could just as easily leave you lost for days.
It felt like that kind of place: Plenty of ways in, but go deep enough, and there’s no way out. Not that long ago — in Hartley’s time — you could see for miles from the highest point, with tracts of land carved into fields by rock walls that now seem to run on random tangents. Now, the paths are sporadically maintained by plucky volunteers, but the woods are clearly winning. You can’t get too far before realizing you’re on your own here.
Dogtown’s original white settlers must have felt much the same. Arriving in 1693, they found giant boulders deposited millennia before by glaciers across the land’s expanse, leaving it rough and hardscrabble, inhospitable to all but the most stubborn forms of life. They chose the area not for its livability, but because its rocky inland position was a natural shield from pirates and Native Americans.
Those early inhabitants cleared the scrub for sheep grazing and whatever agriculture the scant soil could bear. They called it Town Parish, and somehow, it persisted for almost two centuries through harsh winters and meager crop yields. (“Dogtown,” some say, either arose from the guard dogs kept by wives of Revolutionary War soldiers — the name dates to around that time — or for the packs of strays that patrolled the region as the settlement withered.) By the early 1830s, the last of Dogtown’s residents was gone, preceded by most of his neighbors years before as harbors and fisheries in Gloucester and Rockport boomed. In 1845, the final remaining house was taken down, leaving only cellar holes of rough granite that you can still find scattered through the woods.
Gone though it was, the legend of Dogtown lived on. In 1858, Henry David Thoreau strolled through, struck by “the hills strewn with boulders, as though they had rained down, on every side...” Others would follow. The ghost town would become if not a tourist attraction, then a naturalist anomaly in an era of advancing urbanism: a town, reclaimed by nature.
Dogtown would go through a great many more changes over the years — the site of drunken teenage mayhem in the 1970s and ’80s, and then a murder in 1984, which spurred a wholesale cleanup and reclamation — to arrive where it is now: a slightly sinister natural wonder, layered with strange histories, haunted by ghosts, and strung with a path of stones that make it feel vaguely occult. Avert your eyes, if you like, and you’ll see what Hartley saw, almost a century ago: A place “forsaken and majestically lovely," he wrote, "as if nature had at last formed one spot where she can live for herself alone.”