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Detour

Hiking into the history of Gloucester’s early settlers

By Christopher Klein
Globe Correspondent / May 15, 2011

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GLOUCESTER — Venture beyond the nautical facade of this seaside city, and you will discover a quirky interior. In the heart of Cape Ann, miles from the fishing trawlers and art colonies, lies Dogtown, a wilderness filled with strange geologic formations, a Colonial ghost town, and relics from the Great Depression that still echo today.

Early settlers eschewed Cape Ann’s fine seaside views for the safety and ready drinking water of its wooded highlands. The Commons Settlement was established in 1641, and at its peak was home to an estimated 100 families. By the Revolution, however, the village was in decline as prosperous families moved harborside. Abandoned in 1839, the settlement supposedly earned its Dogtown nickname for the prevalence of canines kept by war widows for protection and companionship.

Dozens of cellar holes are the only vestiges of this once-thriving community. Since the stone-lined pits lack any interpretive signage, I felt a bit lost on my initial exploration of Dogtown’s ruins. With more than 3,000 wooded acres, Dogtown is an easy place to lose yourself. So on an early spring day, I joined up with Rockport residents Seania McCarthy and Dee McManus, whose Walk the Words guided tour explains the history and folklore behind Dogtown.

Our moderate 3 1/2-mile hike led us over rocky terrain into Dogtown, which straddles Gloucester and Rockport. The lack of foliage laid bare the peculiar landscape. Strewn all around are massive boulders, some more than 20 feet high. These Ice Age remnants make the land appear so inhospitable that it’s a wonder anyone could have lived here. McCarthy has vintage photographs of a denuded Dogtown before the trees swallowed it up, and it looks downright lunar.

In the midst of the Depression, Roger Ward Babson, who was born in Gloucester, where his family had lived for generations, and who founded Babson College, made an eccentric addition to the already weird surroundings by hiring unemployed stonecutters to carve inspirational mottoes and motivational phrases onto 23 boulders. The Babson Boulders are one-word value statements such as “Loyalty,’’ “Kindness,’’ and “Initiative.’’ A few have been engulfed by brush, making them difficult to spot. “We lost ‘Integrity’ once,’’ McCarthy said wryly.

As we continued, McCarthy warned, “The boulders get a little preachy.’’ Indeed, some of the messages read more like the mutterings of a nagging parent: “Get a Job,’’ “Help Mother,’’ “Use Your Head.’’ Others, though — “Keep Out of Debt,’’ “If Work Stops, Values Decay’’ — resonate in these economic times.

After a cookie break (we didn’t dare loiter to be scolded by one of Babson’s rocks), we reached Dogtown Square, center of the Colonial ghost town. We ducked under branches and pushed away thickets to explore the cellar holes, guided by numbers carved into boulders, like prehistoric house markers straight out of “The Flintstones.’’

As we wandered down the dirt path that was once the main village thoroughfare, McCarthy and McManus regaled me with tales of some of Dogtown’s more colorful denizens: Revolutionary War soldiers, reputed witches, a cross-dressing former slave, and an aspiring matador named James Merry who was fatally gored by his bull in a Dogtown pasture. The spot of his untimely demise is marked by a rock inscribed with blood-red letters: “Jas. Merry Died Sept. 18 1892.’’ (The “Never Try, Never Win’’ motto carved on a nearby boulder seems like a cruel joke by Babson at Merry’s expense.)

In addition to hiking, Dogtown is a popular spot for mountain biking, cross-country skiing, and, fittingly, dog walking. On a peninsula known for its salty dogs, the canines of the four-footed variety still roam its mysterious backcountry.

Christopher Klein can be reached at chris@christopherklein.com.

If You Go

Dogtown
Take Route 128 to Route 127 north. Turn right on Reynard Street, left on Cherry Street, then right at the sign for Dogtown Common to parking area.
Walk the Words
978-546-8122
www.walkthewords.com
In addition to the tour of Dogtown and the Babson Boulders, a 3.25-mile hike through the Briar Swamp to the Whale’s Jaw rock formation is offered. Adults $15, children $7.