Get Connected

A Walk in the Woods

by Tom Clark, Library Director

I am lucky to have a family home in Rockport, MA on the ocean and have spent many a happy moment since childhood enjoying the seaside beauty of all of Cape Ann, located 30 miles north of Boston, including both the quaint, picturesque town of Rockport as well as neighboring Gloucester - the quintessential New England seaport. Both communities have a rich Congregational tradition starting with the original Gloucester parish in 1642 which spread to Rockport. Rockport’s beautiful Congregational Church with a towering steeple in the center of town, is noted for being fired upon by the British in the War of 1812. The church still has the cannonball.

But this blog is about Gloucester’s Second Parish, formed when members of the First Parish petitioned in 1712 to form their own parish due to geographical constrains of traveling from West Gloucester (the Annisquam River and many adjacent tidal salt marshes made travel difficult to West Gloucester). The Meeting House was built in 1713 and was located near what is today the intersection of Concord Street and Bray Street in West Gloucester. Though it was torn down in 1842, it still lives on for those willing to explore the beautiful woods of the Tompson Street Reservation (named after Rev. Samuel Tompson, the first Pastor of the Second Parish) with a Meeting House clearing and an overgrown, forested burial ground.

Besides the scenic coast of which Cape Ann is most known for, the interiors are full of beautiful, hilly, rocky forests. Shared between Rockport and Gloucester is an area known as Dogtown, an early settlement with a storied past which I will write about in a future blog. In West Gloucester, is the Tompson Street Reservation, with many hiking paths ranging from easy to challenging.

There is an entrance to the Reservation off Bray Street identified by a sign for “Old Thompson Street Second Parish, Circa 1700 Historic Walking Path.” This is known as The Old Tompson Cart Path and was well traveled from the early 18th century through the mid-19th century. Less than a ½ mile up hilly path you arrive at a clearing in the woods with signage and a cross with benches commemorating the Meeting House. This spot along the old cart path was once the location of the 15-acre site dedicated to the Second Parish. I noticed there were no stone walls in this area which shows that the surroundings were not for farming, grazing or ownership – but rather, a peaceful gathering spot for worship.

On the northern end of the Concord Street loop is an overgrown entrance with another sign for the “Old Thompson Street Second Parish.” There are stone walls along the old cart path that show territorial usage from years ago. The woods are quite dense, so it would be easy to miss the burial ground unless you keep an eye out for a new formation in the stone walls. When you see the stone walls forming an enclosure, careful inspection reveals slate slabs that turn out to be grave markers (remember…Cape Ann is strewn with rocks everywhere, so it’s not unusual to see rock croppings in the woods).

Entering the burial ground yields several scattered headstones in various states of disrepair, but some are still legible, honoring the departed. Findagrave lists all the stones that have been identified (including several which were removed). The most interesting of these is that of Deacon William Haskell which has survived a tree trunk growing around the headstone.

If you decide to take a walk in the woods on Cape Ann, please set aside time to visit the Cape Ann Museum which has many of the records from the Second Parish.

Information for this blog was gathered from the following material in the Congregational Library Collection:

The Church in the Wilderness 1713 – 1988 by Carl F. Viator, in our West Gloucester Trinitarian Congregational Church collection

History of the Town of Gloucester, Cape Ann, Including the Town of Rockport by John J. Babson

Special thanks to Lise Breen, a Researcher, Writer and Gloucester Historian, and Jeff Cooper, New England Hidden Histories Program Director for sharing their historical knowledge of Second Parish.