Cape Cod Canal History

The Cape Cod Canal first opened to vessel traffic more than 100 years ago. The story of how the Cape Cod Canal became the engineering marvel you see today is rich in history and ingenuity. Offering economic, life-saving and military benefits, the idea of a canal through this isthmus had been explored since the 1600s. Finally becoming a reality under private ownership in 1914, it was redesigned and reconstructed under federal ownership in the 1930s to become the basic infrastructure of today’s modern Cape Cod Canal.

An Idea

Before the Cape Cod Canal, two rivers flowed though this valley. To the southwest flowing into Buzzards Bay was the Manomet River, later called the Monument River. To the northeast, flowing into Cape Cod Bay, was the Scusset River.  As the bird flies, little more than a mile of land no more than 33 feet above sea level separated these rivers. 

The argument for constructing a Canal through the isthmus of Cape Cod dates back to Plimoth Colony at the 1620s. To engage in trade with the Dutch sailing from today’s New York City and with local Wampanoag tribal members, Pilgrims established the Aptucxet Trading Post along the banks of the Mamomet River in 1627.   To get there, it was preferable to travel by water verses the 20-mile overland route. They sailed downed the coast, entered the Scusset River and then portaged about three miles to complete their journey along the Mamomet River. An all water route connecting Buzzards Bay and Cape Cod Bay would have facilitated their trade. Such an undertaking was far beyond the means of the small colony. The idea of building the Canal, however, was revisited innumerable times over the next three centuries. 

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 1880s, shipwrecks occurred at the rate of one every two weeks. 

A Reality

In 1904, the wealthy financier August Belmont II 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 on June 19, 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 harbor and wait for spring. 

By 1910 the Canal project was fully underway. Dredges dug from both bays towards the middle. A fleet of twenty-six dredges of various designs were deployed throughout the construction.

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 1913 respectively. Each highway bridge consisted of two eighty-foot cantilever spans. All three bridges were electrically operated. Belmont’s bridges provided navigational openings of 140 feet, a limitation which would later prove to be a navigational hazard for vessels moving in the Canal's swift currents.

In planning and engineering the Canal project, Chief Engineer Parsons had underestimated the size and quantity 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’ recommendations, 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. This dam, named Foley’s Dike, was removed on July 4, 1914. 

On July 29, 1914, the Cape Cod Canal ceremoniously opened as a privately operated toll waterway. A 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. The Cape Cod Canal was officially completed on April 10, 1916.

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. Ultimately, Belmont’s Canal was a financial failure. 

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 1927 an agreement was reached to sell the Canal for $11,500,000.  

A Success

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 distributing a detailed questionnaire to shipping companies to find out why various vessel types were avoiding the Canal. One concern was the moveable bridge spans. Normally kept in the lowered position, were causing difficulty for mariners, who were often faced with stemming a swift current in a narrow channel while waiting for the bridges to open. As such, the Corps selected two land areas that were naturally elevated, and erected fixed highway bridges. With a vertical clearance of 135 feet above mean high water and a center span of 616 feet, they were designed to accommodate large ocean going vessels passing through the Canal below.

The Corps contracted Fay, Spofford and Thorndike of Boston to design and supervise construction of the two highway bridges. They retained the Boston architectural firm of Cram and Ferguson to advise upon architectural details and the appearance of the structures. The bridges each have a main span measuring 616 feet between centers of support and a vertical clearance of 135 feet above high water. 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. The location of the existing railroad tracks and terminals made it impractical to relocate the railroad bridge. And because of the gradual grades required for locomotives, it was not feasible to provide for a fixed high level railroad bridge. The 2,200 ton center span is supported by 271-foot towers and counter-balanced with 1,100 ton weights on either side. The center span remains in the raised position 135 above mean high water except when it is briefly lowered to allow rail traffic onto or off Cape Cod. 

The Corps contracted the New York firm of Parsons, Klapp, Brinckerhoff, and Douglas to design and supervise construction of the Railroad Bridge The firm of McKim, Mead and White of New York were hired to handle the unique architectural appearance of the bridge. Work began on December 18, 1933, and almost two years later the first train rolled across it on December 29, 1935.

The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 provided $4.6 million in federal funding for construction of the three bridges and other Canal improvements. 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 bridge construction projects employed approximately 700 skilled and unskilled workers, providing needed work during the Great Depression. 

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 at that time. The Canal remained opened to vessel traffic during throughout the work. Not only was the Canal widened and deepened, improvements also included the straightening and lengthening of the approach channel in Buzzards Bay, construction of east end and west end mooring basins, dredging a 15-foot channel into Onset harbor, lining both sides of the Canal’s land cut with rip-rap stone to limit erosion, and the design and installation of a new navigation lighting system through the land cut. 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. 

The newly completed Canal was ready to face what became its busiest years to date - the first half of the 1940s. WWII brought back threats from German U-boats off the outer shores of Cape Cod. More on the history of the Canal from 1940 through today to come…