Cape Cod’s first international tourists ventured from England aboard the Mayflower in 1620s, disembarking on the 77-mile long peninsula that still captivates travelers from around the world today. The Mayflower settlers soon settled in Plymouth along the Cape Cod Bay. By 1623, Miles Standish of the Plymouth Colony proposed a man-made canal separating Cape Cod from Massachusetts’ mainland. At the time, a major factor in the decision to dig this canal was to create more efficient trade routes between the Plymouth settlers in the north and the Native Americans and Dutch in the south. Instead of braving the treacherous waters around the arm of Cape Cod, Pilgrims would be able to leave Cape Cod Bay and head directly south. However, the settlers found themselves unable to take on such a task, as their labor force and technology could not bear the required work.
During the American Revolution, building a Cape Cod Canal was again of interested in order to circumvent British harbor blockades. Going into the nineteenth century, many plans were made, but none succeeded. Meanwhile, the toll of shipwrecks along the hazardous outer banks of Cape Cod continued to mount. During the late 1880’s, shipwrecks occurred at the rate of one every two weeks.
Eventually, by the 1900s, ideas and technology were both advanced enough to finally build the canal. A wealthy New York financier named August Belmont and modern engineering came together to finally make the Pilgrim’s dream a reality. Acting on favorable results of the new engineering study, Belmont decided to begin construction of the Cape Cod Canal. On June 22, 1909, he ceremoniously lifted the first shovelful of Cape Cod soil at Bournedale, promising “not to desert the task until the last shovelful has been dug”. The grand opening of the Cape Cod Canal was July 29, 1914.
Congress directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on March 31, 1928, under authority of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1927, to operate and improve the struggling canal. The deeply detested $16 toll to enter the canal was eliminated and a massive waterway improvement program was undertaken. The Corps distributed a detailed questionnaire to shipping companies around New England in an attempt to find out why various vessel types were avoiding the canal. The survey showed that the moveable bridge spans, normally kept in the down position, were causing great difficulty for mariners, who were harassed by an unrelenting current while waiting for the bridges to open.
Guided by this knowledge, the Corps selected two land areas that were naturally elevated, and erected fixed high-level bridges designed to accommodate the superstructures of large ocean-going vessels. The Corps created a vertical clearance of 135 feet above water and a horizontal clearance of 480 feet. Funding for these bridges came from The National
Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, which provided 4.6 million dollars for the construction of the three Cape Cod Canal bridges and other canal improvements. The bridge construction projects also employed approximately 700 skilled and unskilled workers, providing much needed work during the Great Depression. On June 21, 1935, the highway bridges were opened to traffic, leading vacationers and residents to and from Cape Cod with ease.
The Sagamore and Bourne Bridges, as well as the Cape Cod Railroad Bridge, remain as landmarks adored by those who hold Cape Cod close to their heart. Reaching the Cape Cod Canal marks a poignant moment in any traveler’s journey, either marking their arrival to the beautiful Cape Cod peninsula or the departure from a beloved memory. Whether the Cape Cod Canal is in your foreground, background, or present, its respectable history and importance for New England’s vitality makes this familiar sight very deserving of the grand Cape Cod Canal Centennial Celebration of 2014.
Cape Cod Journey Through Time – PDF
Cape Cod Canal Timeline – PDF
For more historic resources visit these sites:
Sandwich Historical Commission
Bourne Historical Society
Wareham Historical Society
Plymouth Historical Society
Text from picture to the left ….
No one really seems to know where this old wooden railroad station is today, but it was probably either torn down or moved elsewhere and recycled into a home. It may even be lying on the bottom of the Cape Cod Canal! This is the former Bournedale depot (one called the North Sandwich station before the Town of Bourne split away from the Mother Sandwich back in 1884.) It was located on the south side of the waterway right across from where the herring run is today on the north side.
Actually, the canal cut Bournedale in half, with the village mostly on the northern bank and the railroad depot and tracks on the south – with a ferry running back and forth between the two. (Note: both of the tracks and the station used to be located on the north side of the Canal – before it was dug – but both were switched to the south when the Canal was put through (1909-1914). And, when the Canal was widened and deepened in the 1930’s, the site of the old Bournedale station succumbed to progress. So, if you’re a purist, you can go down by the Canal on the waterway (south side) and stare into the water wistfully to see where the old depot once stood as pictured here. Plus, by the way, you’ll also be pretty near the spot where August Perry Belmont first dug into the soil with his “silver shovel” way back on June 22, 1909, initiating his pet project to build a Cape Cod Canal. (Photo from the collection of Howard D. Goodwin of Wareham.)
The Cape Cod Canal: Breaking Through the Bared and Bended Arm
By J. North Conway
The cradle of New England’s shipping doubled as its casket, earning the sailing route around Cape Cod the nickname of graveyard of the Atlantic. From the moment sailors began rounding the Cape, they wished they could sail through it instead. Only after three hundred years of wrecked ships and bureaucratic limbo did August Belmont Jr. arrive- financier of New York’s legendary subway system; breeder of one of the world’s finest horses, Man O’ War; and grandson of one of the world’s most famous seamen, Commodore Matthew Perry, who opened Japan to the West.
By Henry David Thoreau
In the plants, animals, topography, weather, and people of Cape Cod, Thoreau finds “another world” Encounters with the ocean dominate this book, from the fatal shipwreck of the opening chapter to his later reflections on the Pilgrims’ landing and reconnaissance. Along the way, Thoreau relates the experiences of fishermen and oystermen, farmers and salvagers, lighthouse-keepers and ship captains, as well as his own intense confrontations with the sea as he travels the land’s outermost margins. Chronicles of exploration, settlement, and survival on the Cape lead Thoreau to reconceive the history of New England–and to recognize the parochialism of history itself.
The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod
by Henry Beston
The seventy-fifth anniversary edition of the classic book about Cape Cod, “written with simplicity, sympathy, and beauty” (New York Herald Tribune) A chronicle of a solitary year spent on a Cape Cod beach, The Outermost House has long been recognized as a classic of American nature writing. Henry Beston had originally planned to spend just two weeks in his seaside home, but was so possessed by the mysterious beauty of his surroundings that he found he “could not go.” Instead, he sat down to try and capture in words the wonders of the magical landscape he found himself in thrall to: the migrations of seabirds, the rhythms of the tide, the windblown dunes, and the scatter of stars in the changing summer sky. Beston argued that, “The world today is sick to its thin blood for the lack of elemental things, for fire before the hands, for water, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot.” Seventy-five years after they were first published, Beston’s words are truer than ever.
The Forgotten Cape: 1940-1960
By Mary Sicchio
In the 1940s through the 1960s, the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce
promoted Cape Cod as an alluring vacationland where the blue begins, and the
frets of life cease. At the same time, a young, exuberant man with a camera, Richard
Cooper Kelsey, arrived in Chatham. Kelsey began compiling a photographic record of small town life, of Cape Cod tourist landmarks, and the real people of Cape Cod with precision and clarity. He portrayed a Cape Cod of much beauty and charm, an earlier, more youthful time, and a time just within reach of memory. The photographs in The Forgotten Cape: 1940-1960 were culled from the over 7,000 item Kelsey Collection of the Nickerson Room at Wilkens Library, Cape Cod Community College.
The Pendleton Disaster Off Cape Cod: The Greatest Small Boat Rescue in Coast Guard History
By Theresa Mitchell Barbo
On February 18, 1952, off the cost of Cape Cod, a fierce nor’easter snapped in half two 503-foot oil tankers, the Pendleton and the Fort Mercer. Human grace and grit, leadership and endurance prevail as Theresa Mitchell Barbo and Captain W. Russell Webster (Ret.) recount the historic, heroic rescue of thirty-two merchant mariners from the sinking Pendleton by four young Coast Guardsmen aboard the 36- foot motor lifeboat CG36500.
Cape Cod’s Oldest Shipwreck: The Desperate Crossing of the Sparrow-Hawk
By Mark C. Wilkins
In 1626-27, the Sparrow-Hawk began her final journey across the brutal winter waves of the Atlantic Ocean, departing from the southern coast of England with America as her goal. As cases of scurvy and whispers of mutiny rose, the hopes of those aboard the small vessel began to fade. The ever-changing coastline of Cape Cod caused the Sparrow-Hawk to run aground. Desperate to repair their ship and attain their goal of becoming wealthy Virginia tobacco planters, the passengers wrecked her again, forcing them to abandon their beloved ship and take up residence in Plymouth Colony. Revealed by the tides over two hundred years later, the wreckage was pillaged by local scavengers and put on display in Boston. Join Mark Wilkins as he delves into the secrets of the Sparrow-Hawk.
Treasure Wreck: The Fortunes and Fate of the Pirate Ship Whydah
By Arthur T. Vanderbilt II
When the pirate ship Whydah went down in a violent storm just off the coast of Massachusetts in 1717, she took a huge treasury of stolen gold and jewels with her. Pieces of eight have continued to wash ashore since that ill-fated voyage, luring treasure seekers and undersea salvage experts. Here is the story of this plunder, of the pirates who amassed this horde during one legendary year upon the Spanish Main, and the tragedy of their loss upon the shoals of Cape Cod. It is updated to cover salvage efforts still underway in the Whydah’s deep- sea grave. Had it not been for the love of Maria Hallett, whose spirit is still said to stalk the coast, Captain Samuel “Black” Bellamy might not have risked the Whydah’s return through those threatening shoals, so close to the “hanging port” of Boston. This book traces the story of those who survived the wreck only to be imprisoned and then assailed by the soul-saving Reverend Cotton Mather. This is a true adventure of the high seas; a story inextricably melded with legend of the Cape Cod.
Cape Cod National Seashore: The First 50 Years
By Daniel Lombardo
When Pres. John F. Kennedy established the Cape Cod National Seashore in 1961, it was acclaimed as the “finest victory ever recorded for the cause of in New England.” When erosion and overdevelopment threatened the Cape, the idea of a national seashore took hold, forever protecting this treasured place. The park preserves 44,000 acres of forest, marsh, bog, and ponds, and a 40- mile stretch from Provincetown to Chatham, which Henry David Thoreau called the “Great Beach.” Unlike other national parks at the time, the Cape Cod National Seashore was created from a combination of private, town, state, and federal lands. Cape Cod National Seashore: The First 50 Years captures the political drama of the creation of this extraordinary seashore. Images detail an early Native American presence and the romance of whaling, shipwrecks, lighthouses, windmills, and dune shacks.
The Enduring Shore: A History of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket
By Paul Schneider
Even before the Pilgrims landed in 1620, Cape Cod and its islands promised paradise to visitors, both native and European. In Paul Schneider’s sure hands, the story of this waterland created by glaciers and refined by storms and tides — and of its varied inhabitants — becomes an irresistible biography of a place. Cape Cod’s Great Beach, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket are romantic stops on Schneider’s roughly chronological human and natural history. His book is a lucid and compelling collage of seaside ecology, Indians and colonists, religion and revolution, shipwrecks and hurricanes, whalers and vengeful sperm whales, glorious clipper ships and today’s beautiful but threatened beaches. Schneider’s superb eye for story and detail illuminates both history and landscape. A wonderful introduction, it will also appeal to the millions of people who already have warm associations with these magical places.
The Primal Place
By Robert Finch
This is a voyage of discovery, a personal odyssey into the nature of a single Cape Cod neighborhood. It is a rich portrait, beautifully drawn, of a landscape and a community whose essential character lies in their penetrating interface with the sea. But it is also an individual quest, a journey of the heart and mind in which the author seeks “entrance, or rather re-entrance” into “that vast living maze stretching out beyond my lines of sight.”
Death of a Hornet: and Other Cape Cod Essays
By Robert Finch
Spanning more than 20 years, these essays record changes not only in the natural environment of Cape Cod but in the writer’s own life. Death of a Hornet is one man’s elegant rendering of Cape Cod, a sandy, scrub-oaked, tough, and vulnerable spit of land reaching out into the Atlantic Ocean. These stories are “natural adventures” that Finch’s previous readers have come to expect, as well as longer meditations on the future of the Cape’s fragile environment, on living in one place for a long time, and on the limitations of human sympathy.