1914 was a big year for canals

On July 29, 1914, the Cape Cod Canal was officially opened, beating the Panama Canal by 17 days and completing a project that had been on the drawing board for almost two hundred years.  

Each year millions of visitors drive to vacation spots like Falmouth or Provincetown to enjoy the sandy beaches and cranberry bogs of Cape Cod. They know they are getting close when they cross one of the two graceful bridges that arc high above the flowing waters of the Cape Cod Canal.  It's a beautiful sight and a symbolic one as well, delineating the mystique of Cape Cod from the mainland.  Full time Cape residents treat this watery boundary as a sort of spiritual moat and dread the necessity of "crossing the bridge," on the occasional onerous but mandatory off-cape errand.

From Pilgrims to Tycoons

The idea for the Cape Cod Canal was born back in 1626 when the Pilgrim leaders William Bradford and Myles Standish first explored the area around their first permanent settlement in Plymouth Colony, a few miles to the North.  They realized that the Manomet River, which drained West into Buzzards Bay, and the Scusset River, which drained into Cape Cod Bay to the East, were only a short distance apart.  It was immediately apparent that connecting the two bays by digging a canal would provide huge benefits to trade and transportation by alleviating the dangerous 135 mile long trip around Cape Cod.  Unfortunately, the Pilgrims were too busy scrambling to avoid starvation to act on the idea.

The concept was revived again in 1776, when General George Washington sent an engineering team to determine the feasibility of constructing a canal, in the hope of thwarting a British blockade.  Washington's idea was a sound one, and his efforts produced the first detailed engineering survey for the canal, but alas, he too was soon beset with more pressing concerns and the plans for the canal were, once again, postponed.

Pressure for the canal grew over the years due to the number of ships lost on the notoriously treacherous outer banks of Cape Cod.  In the late 1800's shipwrecks occurred in the area on average of once a week.  Finally, in 1904, the New York tycoon and financier Agustus Perry Belmont purchased the Boston, Cape Cod and New York Canal Company, which had held a charter for canal construction since 1899. Belmont hired the famous civil engineer William Barclay Parsons, to perform an engineering study for the project and on June 22, 1909, construction began, with Belmont vowing, "not to desert the task until the last shovelful has been dug."  

You'll never get rich, you're digging a ditch

Through the rest of 1909, Crews began building a breakwater at the East end of the canal using giant granite boulders that had been transported via schooner from Maine.  On the West end, two dredges began carving into the shore of Buzzards Bay at what would become the western approach to the canal.  Work on this end continued until strong winter storms required that the dredges be moved to a safe harbor until Spring. By 1910, a fleet of 26 vessels were at work including ten dredges digging towards each other from the two ends of the canal, Bourne on the West and Sandwich on the East. 

Concurrently, plans were prepared and construction begun on three bridges spanning the canal. The original Bourne and Sagamore vehicular bridges were cantilever drawbridges that opened to allow ships to pass. The Buzzards Bay Railroad Bridge was a bascule-type with a 160 foot long span, balanced by a mammoth counterweight that pivoted on its northern foundation. All three bridges were designed to provide a 140 foot clearance for transiting ships.  This span was considered adequate at the time but would later prove a serious hazard to transiting vessels. The Buzzards Bay Railroad Bridge was completed in 1910, followed by the Bourne Bridge and Sagamore Bridge in 1911 and 1912, respectively. 

Progress on the canal was slowed as the workers encountered huge granite boulders deposited as the glaciers receded during the last ice age. Even the largest dredges and steam shovels used on the project were unable to move these giant impediments, so hardhat divers were used to place dynamite charges that shattered the rocks enough for them to be removed. This approach was effective, but it slowed the progress and threatened the aggressive schedule imposed by Agustus Belmont who was determined to have his canal finished before the Panama Canal.  The chief engineer, William Parsons, directed the crews to begin "digging in the dry" to expand the canal from the middle outwards.  Parsons also ordered the installation of a narrow gauge steam railroad along the side of the cut to allow the excavated material to be removed as the digging progressed.  To further speed the progress, Belmont had two large dipper dredges built at the site by the American Locomotive Company from Patterson, New Jersey. The Governor Herrick was built in Sagamore on the canal's East end, and the Governor Warfield in Buzzards Bay to the West.  These huge digging machines were both on the job by August of 1912. 

These improvements allowed the project to proceed more smoothly and get the canal back on schedule.  By the spring of 1914 the waters of Buzzards Bay and Cape Cod Bay were only separated by a single dam.  Belmont and Perry celebrated the progress at a ceremony where they blended bottles of water from the two bays then opened the final sluiceway.  A few months later, the canal opened on July 29, 1914, seven years to the day after construction had begun and 17 days ahead of the Panama Canal.  The opening was a festive event celebrated with a parade of ships including Belmont's 80-foot private yacht, Scout, and the U.S. Navy destroyer McDougall, which carried the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Belmont's Folly and the ACE

In the year that followed traffic through the canal was brisk, totaling more than 2600 ships.  Despite the relatively high tolls, which were as much as $16 for a schooner, the revenues produced didn't meet Belmont's expectations.  Part of the problem was the water depth in the canal; the original design had called for a depth of 25 feet, but during construction Belmont decided to open the canal with a minimum depth of only 15 feet hoping to use the revenues from the operating canal to deepen it over time. This plan was partially implemented and the depth was increased to 20 feet in 1915.  

The increased depth attracted more traffic, but still wasn't able to produce the revenues hoped for by Belmont who attempted to sell the canal to the Federal Government . When the Perth Aboy was sunk off Nauset Beach by a German submarine on July 22, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson ordered the Federal Railroad Administration to assume control of the Canal without any objections from Belmont.  After the war Belmont sold the canal to the government for $11.5 million and the Army Corps of Engineers assumed responsibility for its operation and maintenance in March 1928.

The evolution of the canal continued in the aftermath of the Great Depression when $4.6 million was authorized under the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 to build the three bridges across the canal that are still in use today. The Bourne and Sagamore bridges, spanning 616 feet, serve as elegant arching gateways to Cape Cod. The 544 foot wide Railroad Bridge provides limited train service to the Cape and is the third largest vertical lift bridge in the United States.  In addition to building the bridges, the 1400 men employed on the project widened the canal to 480 feet and increased its depth to 34 feet, removing 30 million cubic yards of earth in the process.  When the renovations were completed in 1940, the Canal held the title of the widest sea-level canal in the world and finally achieved the popularity envisioned by Belmont with over 20,000 vessels transiting it each year.

View from the quarterdeck

I've had the good fortune to transit the Cape Cod Canal on a tall ship and been delighted at the juxtaposition of old and new.  The same mammoth boulders confronted by Belmont and Parsons still line the shore of the Canal. The scenery is a magnificent blend of people enjoying the bike paths along both sides of the canal, the verdant cape forest rising from the banks, and the soaring bridges overhead.  If you are at the wheel of a boat, the Canal keeps you on your toes. The tides rushing through the canal can reach seven knots, lending an added thrill for sailors traveling with the tide, or a significant challenge for those moving against it



Army Corp of Engineers Canal website: http://www.nae.usace.army.mil/recreati/ccc/ccchome.htm
Cape Cod Canal Webcam: http://www.mma.mass.edu/other/canal.html
Cape Cod Canal tide tables: http://www.co-ops.nos.noaa.gov/tides/CAPECODC.html
Cape Cod Canal 2003 Ship Transit Records: http://www.iwr.usace.army.mil/ndc/wcsc/capecod/capecod.htm
Cape Cod Canal Railroad Bridge fansite: http://web.bryant.edu/~history/h364proj/sprg_00/knm1/