December 6, 2023

Keep Dogtown Wild – Conservation vs. Preservation

Entrance at Dogtown. Photo by Richelle Joseph

By Richelle Joseph ‘18


At the center of Cape Ann lies a green space known as Dogtown.

It is a wild and wide expanse, and though scantily used for recreation due to its hard-to-follow trails, the locals will tell you that getting lost in Dogtown is a rite of passage–and it is certainly the most immersive way to experience and appreciate the wildness of the place.

Dogtown was settled in the mid-1600’s by farmers and their families. As the timber industry began to fade and Cape Ann’s economy turned to fishing,the  prosperity of Dogtown extinguished slowly over time people of Dogtown began to realize there were many places to live—places with better farm land and access to water.

Geographically, Dogtown is hard to farm or build on–but one might also suppose that the psychological impact that the physical landscape has on people has had a big part in the inability to settle Dogtown fully or permanently. Dogtown’s uneven ground, scattered swamps, boulder fields, and briars create an eerie vibe that emanates throughout it. This piece of Cape Ann land has been home to self-proclaimed witches, suicides and spirits, and the weight of these can be felt upon entrance.

In 1830, the last documented member of the Dogtown community was found dead, leaving Dogtown officially uninhabited. However, the abnormal attraction of Dogtown did not leave it uninhabited for long. Dogtown soon became the unofficial residence of prostitutes, ruffians, runaway slaves, and stray dogs, its haphazard landscape serving as home for those unwelcome elsewhere.

Train tracks by Babson Reservoir. Photo by Liam Adams

Today, the stone cellar foundations of many homes are the only relic of Dogtown’s settled past. Yet if you take the time to wander aimlessly, off the main trails, you may stumble upon complex homes built entirely from sticks and mud. There are often trails hidden by dead leaves and logs that can only be found if you look with enough intention.

While organizations like Friends of Dogtown and Cape Ann Trail Stewards (CATS) work hard to maintain and mark the main trails and develop a more comprehensive map, many locals and unofficial residents of Dogtown make their purpose to undo the work that is done.

On multiple occasions, Gordon College’s W.I.L.D. Semester has spent time cleaning up and marking trails only to realize that this is not appreciated by the majority of people who utilize and experience Dogtown frequently.

More often, in regard to Dogtown, the strong opinion lies on the side of preservation, as opposed to conservation. Locals find the mystery and wildness of Dogtown the very things that  make it so unique and attractive. For others, though, especially those who permanently and secretly reside in Dogtown, privacy is the priority.

If we only aim to preserve the secrecy of Dogtown, we run the risk of letting the rich history fizzle out. But if we only aim to develop trails and spread the word about Dogtown, it may become an overpopulated and exploited park, as many locals fear. Is Dogtown worth all the work of preservation if we are unable to experience it in some capacity? And what price do we pay when we decide to make a piece of wilderness accessible?

Somewhere between cutting down every indigenous tree in the name of accessibility and refusing to make and mark trails in the name of preservation, lies a happy medium. The beauty of Dogtown is in it’s ability to resist settlement and reject cartography. In its rich history and unique landscape, too, is there a beauty. The key is to find a harmonious balance of the two.

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