Special status sought for Dogtown

Desi Smith/File photoA group of 25 people make their way up to one of the 26 boulders and rocks that have a carved message on them during a Babson Boulders Tour in Dogtown hosted by Essex Heritage. A Gloucester group hopes to nominate the area for the National Register of Historic Places.

The Fishermen’s Memorial, City Hall, the Eastern Point Lighthouse and Our Lady of Good Voyage Church are Gloucester landmarks already recognized on the National Register of Historic Places.

Now, members of the city’s Historical Commission are hoping to add another, more sprawling landmark to the list: Dogtown.

The commission has hired a team from the Public Archaeology Laboratory in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, to kick off a week of exploring and mapping the landmarks within Dogtown, which covers more than 3,600 acres — roughly 5.6 square miles — in the northern part of Gloucester and some of Rockport. The effort is set to run from Tuesday through Thursday of next week, said Kristen Heitert, lead archaeological for the PAL team.

The project is being funded through a $30,000 matching grant the commission received through the Massachusetts Historical Commission and the nonprofit Dusky Foundation. 

Local residents with knowledge of the area, Dogtown’s notable landmarks, and its trails are invited to offer their assistance as the team maps the area for its nomination to the National Register, and may do so by contacting Historical Commission co-chairwoman Mary Ellen Lepionka at melepionka@comcast.net

“The hope is that our communities will be inspired to undertake landscape restoration and maintenance for public safety and public access and for the protection of Dogtown as a cultural as well as a natural resource,” Lepionka said. “National Register status will lay a new groundwork — a first step — for the future of Dogtown.”

The experts will identify and chart Dogtown’s historical and cultural landmarks, including trails, walls, bridges, mill sites, boulders, and quarries for nomination to the National Park Service Program’s honorary designation, according to Lepionka.

Dogtown history

“It has such a long and rich history,” Heitert said in a phone interview,  “and it’s unusual for its inland location in a place that’s known for its maritime history. It’s an example of how the city developed from an inland to maritime community.

“This is just an attempt to formalize that history in a way that’s accessible to more people through a National Register nomination,” she added. “It’s a preliminary assessment for us to get our arms around what the property looks like; we’ll be photographing some of the  major features and some of the larger geologic formations, and then talk to the people there who can give us guidance.”

The recognition of Dogtown would not, Lepionka said, add any restrictions to the use of the area, much of which is owned by the city. Any decisions regarding land usage of properties would still be at the discretion of private property owners who own land within the area.

A spot on the National Register of Historic Places, however, would make Dogtown eligible for rehabilitation and education grants, as well as subject the area to review by the Massachusetts Historical Commission for ruling on whether any project might harm the site’s historical and cultural resources, Lepionka said. 

Dogtown — popular today for biking, hiking, walking and cross-country skiing, among other pastimes — was settled in 1693 and according to legend, draws its name from the dogs that protected women whose husbands had moved away or, later on, gone off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The area, most accessible off Cherry Street, was abandoned for good as a permanent settlement around 1830, according to information from the Essex Coastal Scenic Byway. Some of the cellar holes from the settlement remain, while the entire area is rich in distinctive boulders, rock formations and stone walls.

Special presentation

Once the visiting archaelogists have explored Dogtown’s trails and tracked its many features, Heitert will present an initial plan for defining the boundaries of the area in its nomination for the National Register. That public information meeting will take place Nov. 29 at 7 p.m. in City Hall’s Kyrouz Auditorium, and will include a presentation by Betsy Friedberg of the Massachusetts Historical Commission on the ins and outs of the National Register Program.

Community members are encouraged to attend both for the sake of learning from the experts on hand to voice their preferences for which cultural and natural features should be included in the proposed historic site, Lepionka said. Residents with views to share but who will not be able to attend the meeting may also contact Lepionka at melepionka@comcast.net or project coordinator and commission member Bill Remsen at wremsen.ipa@gmail.com.

The National Register of Historic Places, the official list of the nation’s historic places deemed worthy of preservation, was authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, and is a National Park Service program aimed at coordinating and supporting public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America’s archeological resources.

In addition to monuments and civic sites, Gloucester’s landmarks on the list include a number of historic homes, including the White-Ellery House off Grant Circle and the 1657 Edward Harraden House on Leonard Street in Annisquam.

Ray Lamont can be reached at 978-675-2705, or rlamont@gloucesteretines.com


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