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A plan to keep Dogtown wild and free

James Benjamin Ellery, a descendant of the first settlers of Gloucester, was 18 in 1894 when he perched on “Whale's Jaw,” a rock formation on Dogtown Common.
James Benjamin Ellery, a descendant of the first settlers of Gloucester, was 18 in 1894 when he perched on “Whale's Jaw,” a rock formation on Dogtown Common. (E.J. Dyer)

The area in Gloucester and Rockport known as Dogtown is hard to pin down. It is part historical site, part recreation area, and part rambling woodland. It is a place where mountain bikers ride rugged trails and history buffs come to explore the remains of Colonial-era homes.

No matter how you see Dogtown, the land is an important local resource that needs to be protected, said Mary Ellen Lepionka, co-chair of the Gloucester Historical Commission and one of the leaders of an effort to have Dogtown listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“We want to see it preserved so the land is not abused,” she said.

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If the project is successful, the designation will make Dogtown eligible for additional state and federal funds to aid in preservation. The listing also would engender a sense of community pride that will help build support for protection and improvement efforts, Lepionka said.

The application process was launched in the fall, with the goal of completing it by August. The project is being organized by a wide coalition of local groups, including the Gloucester and Rockport historical commissions, Friends of Dogtown, Cape Ann Trail Stewards, Essex County Greenbelt, and Mass Audubon.

The process involves extensive research to determine the exact boundaries of the land to be included and to identify and document the historical and cultural significance of the area.

The Dogtown Piggery in 1908.
The Dogtown Piggery in 1908. (Cape Ann Museum)

The area called Dogtown was originally settled in 1693 by colonists who intended to farm the land. From the beginning, living there was a struggle as residents contended with rocky soil that resisted cultivation, population loss during the Revolutionary War, and the lure of the booming fishing industry along the Gloucester waterfront.

By 1830, the settlement was abandoned.

It’s not entirely clear when the unusual name attached itself to the area: Accounts vary, but “Dogtown” might have come from the animals women kept for protection while the men were at war or it might refer to packs of feral dogs rumored to roam the area after the residents left.

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In the years that followed, forest grew back over the cleared land. During the Great Depression, Roger Babson, a wealthy investor and Gloucester native, hired unemployed stonecutters to carve instructional sayings – “Get a Job,” “Help Mother,” “Never Try Never Win” – on some of the granite boulders strewn throughout the area.

Today, “Dogtown” usually refers rather imprecisely to the entire parcel of uninhabited land that stretches between the developed areas bound by Route 127 and Eastern Avenue. It is a wooded tract, criss-crossed with hiking paths and cratered with the cellar-holes of 18th century homes.

“It’s a wild place in the part of the country that’s not known for wild places,” said Anita Diamant, a part-time Rockport resident and author of “The Last Days of Dogtown,” a bestselling novel. “It’s not developed in any way, it’s not marked. There’s a bit of mystery about it.”

To undertake the legwork involved in getting into the National Register of Historic Places, Dogtown champions have contracted with the Public Archaeology Laboratory, a Rhode Island-based nonprofit that conducts this kind of research for local, state, and federal entities.

The $30,000 cost is being covered by a matching grant from the Massachusetts Historical Commission Survey and Planning Grant Program and money from the Dusky Foundation, a nonprofit based in Boston.

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Once the application is complete, it goes to the Massachusetts Historical Commission for approval.

Kevin Martin checks out one of the Babson Boulders in Dogtown. Some visitors have left pennies in the carved message.
Kevin Martin checks out one of the Babson Boulders in Dogtown. Some visitors have left pennies in the carved message. (John Blanding/Globe Staff)
Another of the Babson Boulders, carved during the Depression.
Another of the Babson Boulders, carved during the Depression. (John Blanding/Globe Staff)

The plan has received broad support from the community, Lepionka said. A few residents have expressed concern that the listing could attract more people to the area and damage Dogtown’s ecology. The most significant worry, Lepionka said, has been that the designation would put restrictions on what residents could do with homes that fall within the proposed Dogtown district. It’s not yet clear how many homes could be included, as the borders of the proposed district have not yet been drafted, said Kristen Heitert, senior archaeologist with the Public Archaeology Laboratory.

Heitert and Lepionka have assured those who have expressed concern that a national register listing – unlike local historic districts – does not impose any conformity regulations. ​

Gloucester currently has 25 properties and five districts listed on the national register, according to the Massachusetts Historical Commission. Statewide, more than 75,000 properties are on the list.

Dogtown certainly covers more than 3,000 acres, but could encompass as much as 5,000 acres, depending on whose definitions you use, said Heitert.

Though the area includes some private land, the majority of Dogtown is municipally owned by Gloucester and Rockport. There is, however, little formal management. Volunteers have marked some trails, created maps, and even released a Dogtown app.

In the past, this lack of oversight has made the place a frequent haunt of the homeless. Today, some encampments still exist on the fringes, but they don’t present a major issue, said John McCarthy, Gloucester’s interim police chief.

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“I am sure there are some camps out here in summer into the fall, but we don’t have a large-scale homeless problem out there,” he said.

If Dogtown does make it onto the register, the move will be just the first step for Gloucester and Rockport, Lepionka said. There still will be important decisions ahead about preservation, restoration, and management.

“There are going to be a lot of choices in the future for the community,” Lepionka said. “The Historical Commission just wanted to make everyone aware of how precious a resource it is.”

Jeff Brown rides his mountain bike on Dogtown Common.
Jeff Brown rides his mountain bike on Dogtown Common. (John Blanding/Globe Staff)

Sarah Shemkus can be reached at sarah.shemkus@gmail.com.