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Dogtown

The strange history of an abandoned colonial settlement-turned-wilderness.

By Yvonne Zipp / December 11, 2009



Usually, if they want to see ruins, Americans get on a plane. Author Elyssa East headed for Massachusetts’ Cape Ann. There, 40 miles north of Boston, she explored roughly 3,000 acres of an abandoned colonial settlement-turned-wilderness – loaded with stories about witches, pirates, and Puritans, with a landscape of blueberry bushes and boulders that inspired artists, poets, and at least one economist.

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In its modern incarnation, Dogtown still inspires stories: of hikers who just disappear, and a 25-year-old murder that shocked residents of Gloucester and changed the way many viewed the idiosyncratic forest in their backyard.

Drawn to the dual nature of the place, East began researching her detailed and involving new narrative history, Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town. “Why had the land been abandoned in the first place? Did some places have a propensity for tragedy the way that others brew their own dust storms?” Or, she wondered, had the murder itself colored residents’ perceptions of Dogtown?

East had come to the area following painter Marsden Hartley. Hartley, one of the great Early American modernists, found a landscape “so original in its appearance as not to be duplicated either in New England or anywhere else.” In fact, the land he compared to Stonehenge and Easter Island helped lift him out of a crippling depression that had left him unable to paint. Hartley’s paintings of Dogtown had inspired East as an art history student, and seeking to fill a hollow feeling of dread, she decided to follow him to the source of his own inspiration. (On her first two trips, East goes hiking alone and scares herself silly. She runs into tripods that remind her of “The Blair Witch Project,” and finds out later that the mysterious structures were built by Boy Scouts getting their shelter badge.)

Hartley wasn’t the only artist to be moved by Dogtown. Writers as diverse as poet Charles Olson and Shep Abbott, screenwriter of the 1980s cult horror movie “C.H.U.D,” have been drawn to the area. The latter, also a documentary filmmaker, wrote screenplays sitting in a platform in a tree, and gives East a guided tour of the woods that used to terrify him as a child. Beforehand, East bought one of Abbott’s Dogtown maps. On one side, he drew a fanciful, colorful map, which reminded East of “Narnia, only better because Dogtown was real,” and reproduced a black-and-white guide to the ruins on the other. “I would eventually come to understand that Shep’s map accurately captured Dogtown’s two natures: a mythical, reclaimed wilderness full of life and color on one side, and a brittle, haunted ruin on the other,” East writes.

The settlement was founded in the late 1600s and abandoned in 1839, when Dogtown’s last living resident was taken to the poorhouse, where he died a week later. The area’s fortunes, East recounts, were broken by the Revolutionary War, when impoverished widows and freed slaves became the only people left in the settlement.

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