The idea of linking two tidal rivers to create an all-water route across the seven mile isthmus of Cape Cod was first proposed by captain Miles Standish of the Plimoth Colony. But Standish's dream for a waterway through the isthmus was far too large a task for a small band of pilgrims. During the American Revolution, a canal at Cape Cod took on an importance as a way to circumvent British harbor blockades. Throughout the nineteenth century, many plans were made, but none succeeded. It would take a wealthy New York financier named August Belmont and modern engineering to finally make the pilgrim's dream a reality.
The grand opening of the Cape Cod Canal was July 29, 1914. Belmont's canal was expensive for mariners. As much as $16.00 for a trip by schooner, a considerable amount in those days. This, along with the narrow 100 foot width and shallow depth of the canal made many mariners continue to use the routes around the cape. As a result, tolls did not live up to expectations and the Cape Cod Canal became a losing proposition.
As a result, the Cape Cod Canal was purchased by the U.S. Government on March 30, 1928. The waterway was widened and deepened to nearly 500 feet wide and 32 feet deep, removing 30 million cubic yards of earth. All this work employed a total of 1400 men during the Great Depression. By 1940 the completed Cape Cod Canal represented the widest sea-level canal in the world. Ship traffic could safely transit the waterway and now over 20,000 vessels of all types use the Canal annually.
Early Plans and Attempts
The idea of constructing a Canal through the isthmus of Cape Cod was first considered and explored by Miles Standish of Plimoth Colony in 1623. Standish recognized that a waterway connecting Buzzards Bay and Cape Cod Bay would facilitate trade between Plimoth Colony, native American Indians and the Dutch merchants sailing from New York. Although such an undertaking was far beyond the means of the small colony, the proposal by Standish gave birth to the idea of building the Canal.
During the Revolutionary War, George Washington saw a need for a Canal to give greater security to the American fleet against its enemies. Upon General Washington's orders, Thomas Machin, an Engineer with the Continental Army, investigated the feasibility of a Canal in 1776. His report, recommending that a Canal be built, survives as the first known Cape Cod Canal survey.
Over the next century numerous surveys and Canal feasibility studies were conducted by various individuals and groups. Some were granted charters and a few actually began construction, but they either ran out of money or were overwhelmed by the enormity of the project. Meanwhile, the toll of shipwrecks along the treacherous outer banks of Cape Cod continued to mount. During the late 1880's, shipwrecks occurred at the rate of one every two weeks.
In 1904, the wealthy financier August Perry Belmont became interested in the Canal project. He purchased and then reorganized the Boston, Cape Cod and New York Canal Company, which had held a charter for Canal construction since 1899.
Belmont then enlisted the services of a renowned Civil Engineer, William Barclay Parsons, to investigate the feasibility of such a project.
Acting on favorable results of the engineering study, Belmont decided to initiate construction of the Cape Cod Canal. On June 22, 1909, he ceremoniously lifted the first shovelful of earth at Bournedale, promising "not to desert the task until the last shovelful has been dug".
Belmont's company actually started work in May of 1909 when the first schooners arrived from Maine with granite for construction of a breakwater. The rock was transferred from the schooners to lighters from which it could be positioned and dropped into place on the east end of the Canal.
Meanwhile, on the west end, two dredges were towed into Buzzards Bay to begin work on the westerly approach channel. Very little was accomplished that first year before the advent of winter storms in November forced the company to withdraw its floating plant to safe harborage and wait for spring. By 1910 the Canal project was fully underway. A fleet of twenty-six vessels including ten dredges of various designs were deployed in Buzzards Bay to work on the westerly entrance channel.
The Buzzards Bay Railroad Bridge was completed by September of 1910. It was a bascule bridge with a single span, 160 feet long, which pivoted on the north foundation. The weight of the span was balanced with one huge counterweight. The original Bourne and Sagamore highway bridges were completed in 1911 and 1912 respectively.
Each highway bridge consisted of two eighty-foot cantilever spans. All three bridges were electrically operated. They were each designed to provide navigational openings of 140 feet, a limitation which would later prove to be a severe hazard for vessels moving in the Canal's swift currents.
In planning and engineering the Canal project, Chief Engineer Parsons had underestimated the presence of glacial boulders along the route. As dredging progressed, the men and machinery encountered nests of mammoth boulders, which they were incapable of handling.
Divers were brought in to place dynamite charges. Once the dynamite was in place, the divers would withdraw in small wooden scows and detonate their charges. This time consuming process slowed dredging operations.
Falling behind schedule, the Canal Company decided to use steam shovels to dig "in the dry" in the middle of the isthmus. Acting on Parsons recommendation, the Company also placed narrow gauge railroad tracks along the Canal route to enable railed dump cars to carry material off to the sides of the cut. Although the tracks had to be moved frequently as the digging progressed, the method did work fairly well.
Still not satisfied with the rate of progress, Belmont contracted with the American Locomotive Company in Patterson, New Jersey for construction of two large dipper dredges to be built at the Canal construction site. The GOVERNOR HERRICK was assembled on the east end in Sagamore while the GOVERNOR WARFIELD was being readied on the west end in Buzzards Bay. By August 1912, these huge machines began digging toward each other in the final phase of Canal construction.
With the additional dredging equipment now on site, the Canal project progressed steadily. By April 1914, only one dam separated the waters of Cape Cod Bay from Buzzards Bay. To celebrate the progress, Belmont ceremoniously blended bottles of water from both bays before opening the final sluiceway. As the waters trickled through, Belmont and Parsons shook hands; the long awaited completion of the Cape Cod Canal was now in sight.
On July 29, 1914, the Cape Cod Canal opened as a privately operated toll waterway. The festive Parade of Ships included the excursion steamer ROSE STANDISH, the destroyer MCDOUGALL carrying the then Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Belmont's eighty-one foot yacht, the SCOUT. Mr. Belmont had achieved his objective of opening the Cape Cod Canal before the Panama Canal, which opened on August 15, 1914, seventeen days later.
Although the charter depth was twenty-five feet, Belmont decided to open the Canal with a controlling depth of only fifteen feet. By opening at a lesser channel depth, Belmont could then begin to receive revenue from ships using the partially completed Canal. Belmont hoped that once the charter depth was achieved, more tug and barge traffic would find the Canal an attractive route.
Traffic steadily increased with the continued deepening of the Canal. In 1915, with the channel twenty feet deep, 2,689 vessel transits were recorded; the following year the number of vessel transits reached 4,634 with a gross tonnage of 3.5 million. However, the original Canal never achieved the level of traffic or revenue its investors had envisioned. Several serious accidents caused lengthy Canal closures and mariners began to fear the swift currents and narrow bridge openings. By 1915, Belmont had already attempted to sell the faultering Canal to the Federal Government.
On July 22, 1918, a German submarine fired on the American Tug PERTH AMBOY, in waters three miles off Nauset Beach, Cape Cod. To assure greater coastwise navigational safety, President Woodrow Wilson ordered the Federal Railroad Administration to take over and operate the Canal. After World War I Belmont reluctantly resumed operation of the waterway while negotiating with the Federal Government for its sale. Finally, in March of 1928 an agreement was reached to sell the Canal for $11,500,000.
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 foundering Canal. The toll was eliminated and a massive waterway improvement program was undertaken. The Corps of Engineers learned of navigational problems by listening to the concerns of the waterway users. A detailed questionnaire was distributed to shipping companies to find out why various vessel types were avoiding the Canal. The Corps learned that the moveable bridge spans, normally kept in the down position, were causing great difficulty for mariners, who were often faced with stemming a swift 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; by providing a vertical clearance of 135 feet above mean high water and a horizontal clearance of 480 feet.
The location of the existing railroad tracks and terminals made it impractical to relocate the railroad bridge. Because of the gradual grades required for locomotives, it was not feasible to provide for a fixed high level railroad bridge. The Corps selected a vertical lift bridge design with one huge center span, counter-balanced with 1,100 ton weights on either side. The center span remains in the raised position except when it is briefly lowered to allow rail traffic onto or off Cape Cod. The vertical and horizontal clearances are the same as the highway bridges.
The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 provided 4.6 million dollars in federal funding for construction of the three bridges and other Canal improvements. The bridge construction projects employed approximately 700 skilled and unskilled workers, providing needed work during the Great Depression.
On June 21, 1935, the highway bridges were opened to traffic. In December of that year, the vertical lift railroad bridge was completed.
Recognizing that it would be necessary to widen and deepen the Canal, the Corps contracted with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to construct a hydraulic model to test the concept of a straight approach through Buzzards Bay to replace the sharply curving channel through Phinney's Harbor. Data obtained from this study proved conclusively that the direct approach channel would be feasible and that dikes would reduce the need for maintenance dredging.
Construction of a 480 foot wide, 32 foot deep, and 17.4 mile long channel was approved by the Rivers and Harbors Act of August 30, 1935. The work was initiated in 1935 and completed in 1940, making the Cape Cod Canal the widest sea level Canal in the world. This broader, deeper and safer two-way Canal attracted three times as many vessels and eight times as much cargo tonnage as had Belmont's Canal in its last year of operation.
Cape Cod Canal Bridges
Spanning the original Cape Cod Canal, constructed by New York financier August Belmont, were two twin cantilever draw type highway bridges and a draw type bascule railroad bridge with openings over the water of only 140 feet. These narrow passages, combined with the swift currents and winding approaches, made mariners leery of using the waterway. Going around the tip of the cape, however, added up to 165 miles to their trip through waters where many ships had already sunk. Since the drawbridges could only be crossed when there was no marine traffic, automobiles going to and from Cape Cod also experienced delays.
When the Corps of Engineers was assigned responsibility for the waterway in 1928, a series of improvements began, including the replacement of the three bridges.
On September 6, 1933, the Public Works Administration (the agency responsible for managing Emergency Relief funds during the Great Depression) authorized construction of three bridges over the Canal. Contractors began laying the bridge foundations in December 1933. In accordance with Public Works Administration regulations, work was distributed widely; and, wherever practical, hand labor was used instead of machinery to provide as many jobs as possible.
The two highway bridges were designed and Fay, Spofford and Thorndike of Boston supervised construction. They retained the Boston architectural firm of Cram and Ferguson to advise upon architectural details and the appearance of the structures.
The Sagamore Bridge was constructed about two and one half miles from the eastern end of the Canal land cut, and the Bourne Bridge about one and two thirds miles from the western end of the land cut. The bridges each have a main span measuring 616 feet between centers of support and a vertical clearance of 135 feet above high water. The structures differ in the number of approach spans. The roadway width of the bridges, designed for four lane traffic, is 40 feet between curbs. Built simultaneously, the bridges were dedicated on June 22, 1935, and opened to traffic.
The Bourne Bridge won the American Institute of Steel Construction's Class "A" Award of Merit as "The Most Beautiful Bridge Built During 1934."
The vertical lift railroad bridge, with a 544 foot horizontal span, was constructed close to the western end of the land cut, near the site of the old bridge. At the time of its construction, it was the longest lift span in the world, supported by 271 foot high towers. The span is normally kept in the raised position; 135 feet above mean high water. The New York firms of Parsons, Klapp, Brinckerhoff, and Douglas and Mead and White prepared plans for the bridge. Work began on December 18, 1933, and almost two years later the first train rolled across it on December 29, 1935.
Over the years, minor repair work, such as painting of the superstructures and resurfacing of the roadways, was accomplished on the bridges. In 1980, however, major rehabilitation of the two highway bridges began. The work included replacement of the decks, repaving, repainting, installation of twelve foot high suicide deterrent fences, and, on the Sagamore Bridge, replacement of the hanger cables. The rehabilitation costs were $12 million for the Bourne Bridge, and $8 million for the Sagamore Bridge. Hanger cables on the Bourne Bridge were replaced in January 1986.
Each year, more than 35 million vehicles pass over these two bridges, which provide the only land link between Cape Cod and the rest of Massachusetts.
Operation of the railroad bridge is completely funded by the Corps of Engineers. For many years trains were the primary means of transportation to and from the Cape for people and goods. By the late 1960s, however, train trips across the bridge had dropped off significantly. Currently, almost exclusively trash trains servicing the Cape now that most landfills are closed use the bridge.
Dedication ceremonies for the bridges were held on June 22, 1935. More than 8,000 people participated in a parade, which began at Trading Post Corners on the south side of the Canal. Led by Major General Daniel Needham, participants included troops from his 26th Yankee Division, state troopers, floats from a number of communities, bands, drum and bugle corps, fire apparatus and veterans organizations.
Governors James Michael Curley of Massachusetts and Theodore Francis Green of Rhode Island and Mrs. August Belmont, widow of the original Canal builder August Perry Belmont, were among the dignitaries.
Between 100,000 and 200,000 were reported to have viewed the parade along its 7 1/2 mile route across both bridges. At the Bourne Bridge, Governor Curley performed the ceremonial ribbon-cutting honors. The Massachusetts governor lavished praise on the entire Canal project, stating: "The construction of these beautiful bridges and the expenditure of nearly $40,000,000 for the development of this inland waterway is bound to contribute to the happiness and well being of the people of Massachusetts." At the Sagamore Bridge, Mrs. Belmont severed the ribbon, while aerial shows went on overhead.
Bourne Town Hall was the site of a Ball on Friday night, and Saturday evening a banquet was held at the State Pier, with Governor Curley as principal speaker. The town also hosted another dance that evening, while the SS. Boston of the Eastern Steamship Line passed through the Canal, ablaze with twinkling lights, waving pennants and whistles blowing in salute to the new bridges.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is proud of our more than seven decades of service to the Cape Cod area. The work we have accomplished since being assigned responsibility for the world-famous Cape Cod Canal in 1928 is significant. Improving and maintaining the Canal including the three bridges that span it has been a unique and rewarding challenge. Our efforts have contributed to the economy and quality of life in the region, and to those who live, work, and play here.
The southeast corner of New England, to which the name "Cape Cod" was given by the explorer, Bartholomew Gosnold in 1602, reaches out in the form of a narrow, hooked spit to one of the two most hazardous sections of the Atlantic Coast. It is said that experienced mariners fear the waters to the east and south of Cape Cod more than those off Cape Hatteras. The hazardous region off Cape Cod, known as Nantucket Shoals, and consisting of a bottom of shifting sand over which the depth varies from 1 to 25 fathoms, extends about 70 miles almost due south from the southernmost part of Cape Cod at Monomoy Point to the navigational aid which replaced the "Nantucket Light Ship", marking the outer limit of the area. In traversing the Cape Cod section of the coast, waterborne traffic had, until 1914 (when the Canal was opened to traffic), the choice between two routes; the all-sea route outside the Nantucket Light Ship, or the Vineyard Sound route, which entailed navigating a zigzag course through tortuous channels in the Nantucket Shoals area, passable only by a limited number of vessels. The larger vessels were forced to use the route around the Nantucket Light Ship.
Although these routes are lighted and well marked, the difficulties attending their navigation are increased by the prevalence in the area of dense fog caused by evaporation due to the meeting of warm, easterly air currents and cold currents from the Maine coast. The 300-year history of navigation in this section reflects the natural hazardous conditions of this area of shoals, irregular courses, currents, wind, ice and fog and a general lack of refuge, with a long, tragic list of wrecks and their accompanying toll of lives, cargoes, and ships.
Colonel Edward Durr, C.E., stated in 1922, "the special economic function of a Cape Cod Canal is to provide a route that will be economically more desirable to traffic than the natural routes around Cape Cod through the elimination of dangers and delays and the expense resulting there from."
In spite of the increase in Canal traffic after its purchase by the Government in 1928, the use of this waterway was limited by its narrow width and shallow depth to the smaller type of vessel. Large vessels were still forced to use the outside route. In the 15-year period prior to 1930, 75 accidents occurred in the Canal, causing an estimated loss of $800,000. The cause of most of these accidents can be traced to the narrow channel then existing, to rapid currents, or to their combined adverse influence.
The special economic function of the Canal was not completely fulfilled by its original construction or by its ownership and operation by the Government. Because of the limited dimensions, the many benefits accruing from the use of the Canal were not available to all classes of shipping. Therefore, as a result of numerous economic studies, physical surveys and hydraulic investigations, improvement was undertaken with a view to serving adequately that large and very important part of the nation's waterborne commerce.
The Canal has what can be a confusing range of tides. Mean tide range in Cape Cod Bay is 9.4 ft. but only 4 ft. in Buzzards Bay. The phase and mean tide levels also differ in the two bays. This differential produces high tide in Buzzards Bay three hours ahead of that in Cape Cod Bay. Mean tide is five feet higher in the latter bay. The currents reverse direction every six hours, and a maximum current velocity of 5.2 knots is generated. The effect of these tidal phenomena on a theoretical Canal section of 540 feet wide and 32 feet deep has been studied with the aid of a model 115 feet in length and constructed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
This model yielded valuable data which were useful in planning the present Canal. It was built of concrete to a horizontal scale of 1:600 and a vertical scale of 1:60. Tides were automatically created by an electrical water-level control mechanism, and water levels at stations along the model were obtained by an electrical water-level indicator. Both devices gave results to 1/100 inch in the model. In addition to the determination of hydraulic data, the study disclosed serious eddy and crosscurrent conditions in Buzzards Bay, which were corrected by the construction of dikes. These dikes were constructed by the disposal of the material dredged hydraulically from the Buzzards Bay approach channel. Hog Island, or Buzzards Bay Channel, the straight western approach to the Canal with a width of 500 feet and a depth of 32 feet at mean low water, was opened to navigation on April 22, 1937. The mooring basins at the easterly and westerly ends of the Canal are equipped with mooring dolphins, the depth available at the former is 25 feet, and at the latter, 32 feet, both at mean low water.
The land through which the Canal passes is composed principally of sand, although gravel, cobbles, and boulders are present. Much of the sand is fine and capable of being moved by tidal currents and the surface waves caused by wind or the passage of vessels. To preserve and protect the bank slope and alignment of the sides of the Canal from this wave wash, revetment 2 feet thick, composed of riprap and crushed stone, and extending 5 feet below water level to 5 feet above high water, has been placed on both banks for the whole length of the Canal. The revetment work was done largely in the dry, prior to widening the Canal by dredging.
The project depth of 32 feet at mean low water was selected because it will accommodate nearly all vessels entering or leaving the ports of Boston and Portland. The increase in Canal traffic is reflected not only in the number of vessels using the Canal, but also in the average size and value of the cargo.
The traffic in the Canal reflects the commercial and industrial activity of New England. Savings of distance, fuel and time, more reliable ship schedules, and other incidental benefits are available to practically all coastwise and intercoastal shipping serving this important section of the nation's industrial and economic life.