Information

Building the Cape Cod Canal



Keith Car Works - An Early Manufacturing Powerhouse On Cape Cod

The Keith Car Works was a huge factory that once stood on land that existed before the present-day Cape Cod Canal was dug out. But the name is a bit misleading, as the factory primarily made various types of wagons, and later, railroad cars. Jerry Ellis is a former Bourne selectman whose house sits about 50 yards from the canal.

“They started off with a blacksmith shop, and they made carriages, and that started out in 1828 right in this area,” Ellis said.

The factory was started by Isaac Keith, a man known for being a forward thinker. At its peak, the Keith Car Works employed around 1,400 people. It was the largest building on Cape Cod at the time – around 1,330 feet long.

Workers at the plant were mainly Italian laborers. The plant’s owners eventually created a factory town, which had a number of firsts for the area.

“The first doctor, so that all the people here could have their own doctor instead of going a long distance. They built the first mall, as it were, in the village of Sagamore, that had approximately 25 stores, from Adams Pharmacy to dry goods stores to donut shops,” Ellis said.

When Gold Rush fever took hold in California, the factory started churning out wagons to accommodate the hordes of people heading west. They also produced other items the hopeful fortune-seekers might need, like picks, shovels, axes, and crowbars.

Isaac Keith constantly adapted production at the plant to fit the needs of the moment. When the Civil War began, the plant began making wagons to haul cannons. After Isaac’s death in 1870, his two sons took over and the Keith Car Works continued to prosper. Around the start of World War One, the plant secured a contract to build 40,000 rail cars known as “40 and 8’s” – cars that were built for 40 men or eight horses. The cars would be manufactured and pre-fabricated for shipment to France.

The Keith Car Works was known as a model of production efficiency.

“You take a car in the far west end of the factory, and when it came out to the far east end of the factory on the Sandwich town line, you had a finished boxcar,” said Jerry Ellis. “Six blacksmith shops within the factory…by 1905 or 6, the whole factory was electrified – one of the first areas around here.”

After World War I, the factory’s contract for 40,000 rail cars had run out, so the plant began refurbishing wooden boxcars – around 14,000 a year. But by then, the railroad system was shifting to metal boxcars, and the plant would have to have re-tooled their entire facility to adapt. The Keith Car Works closed in 1928. At around the same time, the original Cape Cod Canal needed to be widened and made deeper, so the government stepped in and took it over.

“The bridges were built, the canal was widened, Keith Car Company disappeared, all the buildings were taken down by 1938, and everyone said the whole car company’s gone, there’s nothing left. But what is a monument to Mr. Keith and his innovation were the houses that he left behind,” said Ellis.

Those houses are still scattered around present-day Sagamore. And many Sagamore residents still live in buildings that once housed workers at the Keith Car Works.


Tracing the Origins of Route 6, Cape Cod's Main Transportation Artery

Whether you live on Cape Cod year-round or visit during summer, Route 6 is a part of daily life. Most of us use it to get pretty much anywhere of any distance on this small peninsula. It’s so baked into the DNA of the place that it’s hard to imagine a time before summer traffic jams, before the familiar artery we so heavily rely on today.

The ancestors of Route 6 were the rudimentary roadways and cartpaths that already existed in the region when the Pilgrims arrived.

“Many of the roads we see on the Cape date back even before the Pilgrims,” said Steve Tupper, Transportation Program Manager at the Cape Cod Commission.

As the maritime industry began to grow, roads were expanded and improved to provide access to the region’s many harbors. Then came the railroads, which eventually reached nearly every town on the Cape.

“The roads continue to develop to support new infrastructure that came to the region,” said Tupper. “And that’s why you see so many Depot Roads out there and Station Aves., and all things related to the rail infrastructure.”

Around the 1920s, railroads on Cape Cod began to decline, as automobiles began to take hold, giving rise to a new industry - tourism. And with the opening of the Cape Cod Canal, local roadways including Route 6 began to expand,

The road was officially designated in 1926, nine years before the canal bridges were built.

“At that time, it was really just a designation that followed many local routes. So for the most part, on the Cape, it would be following what we know today as Route 6-A…so it provided that long connection, but it doesn’t have the infrastructure that we’re familiar with today,” Tupper said.

The next milestone for Route 6 was in 1937, when it was expanded to become a trans-continental highway connecting Provincetown to Long Beach, California. The coast-to-coast roadway became the longest numbered route in the U-S, a distinction it held until 1964.

Fast-forward 13 years, when the first major expansion of Route 6 got underway. That effort was tied to the Eisenhower administration’s initiative to develop the first U-S interstate highway system.

“1950 was the first major construction effort that brought Route 6 from the Sagamore Bridge up to Hyannis just as two lanes and ending at what was known as the Hyannis Rotary, which is where we would know the exit 6 interchange today,” said Tupper.

In 1952, the 2-lane road was extended to Dennis at what’s now exit 9. Then, in 1959, it was lengthened to reach the Orleans-Eastham rotary.

The main part of Route 6 goes right through the middle of the Cape, an area where there wasn’t much development when the highway was cut through. Consequently, there wasn’t a lot of local opposition to the new road.

“Route 6 is a little bit different than 6-A or 28 where these are historic routes that are being changed,” Steve Tupper said. “This was the first road that was kinda built out of nothing. So in one sense it was a big change, but in another sense it also didn’t disrupt the character of some of the villages.”

The highway went from 2 to 4 lanes in 1954, but only as far as exit 6. It would be 1971 before those 4 lanes would continue to Dennis.

In the 1980’s, there was an effort to try and widen Route 6 to 4 lanes from Dennis to the Orleans rotary, but local opposition and resource concerns prevented that from happening.

Meanwhile, one of the biggest challenges today is keeping the busy highway safe, especially in communities like Eastham where Route 6 also serves as the town’s Main Street.


Seven Miles and Beyond

The East end of the Cape Cod Canal with an angler fishing in a ray of morning light. Photography by John Doble.

Along the famed Cape Cod Canal wait dedicated surfcasters, and among them, two men stand out.

“My uncle Jack bought land in Mattapoisett just before going off to war in Korea. When Hurricane Carol came through in 1954, it picked up an entire house and dropped it right in the middle of the street by Uncle Jack’s property. So, my grandfather went and bought that house for $50 and moved it to Jack’s land,” laughs Ed Doherty. “Eventually, Jack came home and built his own house right next to that one, and my family kept buying land around Mattapoisett. It became like a Doherty-Flynn compound, and that’s how I fell in love with the area.”

Doherty counts himself lucky for the serendipitous events that led his family to the region and that his wife, Joanne, also loves Mattapoisett. He has become a regular around town, known widely as East End Eddie, his pen name, for his love of fishing the East End of the Cape Cod Canal. In fact, since his retirement from the court system after a career spanning almost four decades, Doherty can be found along the Canal almost every morning—usually 2 a.m., but sometimes 3 if he sleeps in. “I think I’ve stood on every rock along the Canal by now,” he jokes.

Sunrise looking at the Railroad Bridge

In 2018, Doherty decided to put his experiences surfcasting along the Canal into a book that he titled, “Seven Miles After Sundown,” and he enlisted the help of local photographer, John Doble, to illustrate his story. The two men, friends for years thanks to Doble’s career as a Bourne Police Detective and Doherty’s lifetime appointment as Clerk Magistrate of the Wrentham District Court, belong to a unique community that meets along the Canal day in and day out to fish, take in the incomparable sights, and most often, to escape the stress of everyday life—“Canal Rats,” as they’re called. “Seven Miles After Sundown” is an homage to that community—complete with personal interest stories about the fishermen often known only by their first names or nicknames, East End Eddie’s classic humor, and Doble’s astounding photography.

“Being out along the Canal at first light and watching the colors change…there’s nothing like it. Many times, I’d have to put the rod and reel down and pick up the camera,” says Doble of how he first discovered his passion for photography. “Now, I never leave home without my camera.”

The Sagamore Bridge with a barge under tow

Fishing the Canal is in Doble’s blood he’s a third generation visitor to the seven miles he deems “the greatest place in the world to catch large game fish from shore.” And, Doherty agrees: “Normally to get to water that deep, you’d need a boat,” he says. “I find surfcasting to be an exciting challenge—more old-fashioned and without the fancy electronics that fishing from a boat would provide.” As Doherty states in his book, the unique trials that the Canal’s setting provides can become addictive. He writes, “Even when you are not at the Canal it is sometimes hard to get fishing out of your head once you have experienced the excitement of reeling in and landing a nice linesider…Like John Doble once told me, ‘The tug is the drug!’”

Doble can often be seen riding what he has christened his “Canal Cruiser”—a bike whose destination is so frequently the Canal that the moniker is more fitting than simply “bike”—from his home just up the road in Bourne down to the sacred fishing spot. In fact, many of the Canal Rats ride bikes, rigged to hold their rods and gear, along the Canal to search for fish breaking along the shore—one of the many factoids that Doherty shares in his book. But, Doble’s Canal Cruiser has one extra piece of equipment: his camera. “I think what I like best about my photography is just being there, watching the sun come up over the bridges and the reflections it creates off of the Canal,” says Doble—a sentiment that flawlessly captures the beauty and serenity that the Cape provides to so many, especially along the unique waters of the famed Canal. “A lot of people look at the sunrise and forget to look behind them,” he cautions. “To see what the sun is doing out toward the west—that’s often the most breathtaking part.”

The almighty striped bass.

In a handwritten note scrawled inside a copy of “Seven Miles After Sundown” sent to Cape Cod Life, Doherty writes, “Catch a big one!” signing the exclamation, East End Eddie. Even in that short message, his love for fishing (and for the Canal) is evident, and as you turn the pages, Doble’s photography artfully captures that same feeling.

In this photo portfolio, enjoy shots by John Doble demonstrating the reverence and respect for the famed Cape Cod Canal (and beyond) that has kept him, his family, and a whole community of dedicated fisherman returning morning after early morning, for generations.

“Seven Miles After Sundown” is available on Amazon and at many Cape Cod locations and beyond including Titcomb’s Bookshop, Sandwich and Isaiah Thomas Books, Cotuit.

  • Bourne Bridge at night with a perfect clear sky.
  • Bourne Bridge with a golden sunset
  • Bourne Bridge with a golden sunrise.

The Parade of Boats

August Belmont Jr., the Wall Street financier, finally took up the shovel laid down by so many before him in 1909. Building the canal entailed considerable blasting though ledge and boulders to connect the two sides of Cape Cod. Belmont never wavered, however, and his deep pockets proved a match for the canal at last. In 1914 the canal opened with a grand parade of boats, lead off by the Rose Standish.

Finally, hopeful mariners thought, the perils and loss of life that were inherent in passing the outer Cape would be a thing of the past. But the vision would have to wait. When Belmont opened the canal, he set tolls at a hefty rate to recover the high cost of building the canal.

Working on the Cape Cod Canal

The tolls, it turned out, were too high for many of the shipping lines. Many of the companies valued their bottom line more than the potential loss of a few sailors. The chance to shave 62 miles off the trip between New York and Boston wasn’t enough of a draw. In addition, the canal itself was tricky to navigate, and crashes in the canal hurt its image. With so many mariners continuing to take the risk of rounding the Cape, the canal turned into a money loser.

The U.S. government took control of the canal in 1918 in the interest of national security. In 1928, the government bought out Belmont altogether and embarked upon a series of improvements until the canal of 1914 became the canal we see today.


You can read more about the Cape Cod Canal in The Cape Cod Canal: Breaking Through the Bared and Bended Arm by J. North Conway. The book plunges into the character of Cape Cod, from its discovery to its chowder, and of the man who managed to cut a path through it.


The Beach Times

A must-do while on Cape Cod is to drive down Route 6A, much of which is known as the Old King's Highway, as it is full of historic attractions that will give you greater insight into life on the Cape as a whole. Along the highway, you'll come across architecture that reflects the changes the area has undergone, as there are buildings from the 1600s all the way through the 1900s.

This portion of Route 6A starts in Sandwich and runs all the way to Orleans. As you drive the highway, you'll be following the same route used by Native Americans before settlers even arrived in the United States, as it was first a trail connecting local villages and camps. The path was also used by the first European settlers, as they came to Cape Cod from Plymouth, before settling in the region and creating the still-standing society we enjoy to this day.

Of course, a lot has changed over the years, but you'll have views of the same beaches and green spaces that pilgrims saw over 375 years ago, and can even enter some of the homes built by some of Cape Cod’s first inhabitants. The Old King’s Highway is a look at living American history that you’ll struggle to find anywhere else in the country.

Get Started in Sandwich

Soon after crossing the Sagamore Bridge onto Cape Cod, you’ll reach Sandwich. Here, you’ll want to make sure you get onto Route 6A, rather than Route 6, as 6A will take you through many of the Cape’s historic districts.

Sandwich is not only the oldest town on Cape Cod, having been incorporated in 1639, but is also one of the oldest centers in the entire country. To start your tour of Sandwich, you'll head south just off the Old King's Highway into the town's historic center. Here, you'll come across the Sandwich Glass Museum, known for its rare glass creations dating back to the 1880s.

The historic district also has Dexter Grist Mill, which was built in 1637 and in commercial operation until 1881. It remains one of the country's oldest water mill sites, and you can purchase cornmeal ground right there at the mill.

Just south of the mill is Hoxie House, one of the oldest houses on the Cape, having been raised in 1675. There are tours through the house’s interior, which still features period decor. If you head a little further south off 6A, you'll come to the Heritage Museums and Gardens, a structure that is home to pretty much everything you'd expect to find in an American museum, including classic cars.

As you move along the Old King's Highway, you'll quickly reach East Sandwich, an area home to the Wing Fort House, the oldest continuously-owned-by-the-same-family home in New England, having been built in 1641. You can do a tour of the house during the high season for a small fee. This area is also where the Nye Family of America Homestead stands. This homestead was constructed in 1678 and is now a museum, with each room being representative on a different era of the home's existence, right down to the period decor.

Continue Through Barnstable

The Old King's Highway Historic District in Barnstable runs the entire length of the city from east to west on Main Street. In that space, there are nearly 500 buildings, some of which were built as far back as the 1630s, with the newer buildings being constructed in the mid 1800s. The area as a whole was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.

Of particular interest in Allyn House, which dates back to the late 1600s, and Barnstable House, a structure that might be haunted. The district is also home to the Old Jail, built in 1690 and the country's oldest wooden jail. The jail now houses a museum, along with the Old Customshouse.

A Stop in Yarmouth Port

The great thing about Yarmouth Port is you won't have to venture off Route 6A to visit most of the town's historic sites. This part of Cape Cod was popular with sea captains, as many built large homes there and, as luck would have it, a number of these structures remain to this day.

Captain Bangs Hallet House is Cape Cod's only fully-furnished former captain's house that is open to daily visitors. The residence provides insight into how a sea captain would have lived in the 1800s, right down to furniture and decor.

Just across fro Hallet House is Winslow Crocker House, which was moved to Yarmouth from West Barnstable in 1936. The house was originally built sometime around 1780 and was a very high-end home for its time period. The building belonged to a merchant and trader, who might have been a rum runner, and today is a museum with public tours available daily.

Edward Gorey House offers a different kind of Cape Cod history because it is an art gallery and museum dedicated to the life and works of Edward Gorey. Gorey purchased the home, which was 200 years old at the time, in 1979 and it became a museum after his death in 2000.

Yarmouth New Church dates back to 1870 and is one of Cape Cod's choicest examples of Gothic architecture. The building is detailed and very similar in quality to what you'd expect to find in an old European neighborhood. It is no longer an active church but does host events throughout the year.

Some History in Dennis

After crossing through Yarmouth, Route 6A heads north into the heart of Dennis, where you'll find Josiah Dennis House and the West Schoolhouse occupying the same grounds. Josiah Dennis House dates back to 1736 when it was home to a local reverend. In fact, the town of Dennis is named after this man, who was a minister for 38 years in the area. Today, the home is a museum, as is the West Schoolhouse, which was moved to the land in 1973. The school was constructed between 1770 and 1775 and is the last remaining schoolhouse from that era.

The Scargo Tower isn't as old as many structures along the Old King's Highway, having been built in 1901 as a lookout, but it is free to visit and at 30 feet tall, provides panoramic views of the entire area. In fact, on a sunny day, you can see all the way to Provincetown in the north and the Sagamore Bridge to the west.

Drive Through Brewster

In Brewster, Route 6A runs along Main Street and is surrounded by historic sites. As you approach the town's center, you'll see Drummer Boy Park, which is home to a windmill from the 1700s, along with a blacksmith shop. Just down the road from the park is the Cape Cod Museum Of Natural History, an entity that takes a more ecological approach to the area's history.

Moving into central Brewster, you'll find Captain Elijah Cobb House. This building is the permanent home of the Brewster History Society and hosts a variety of museum artifacts while offering tours. The home was built in about 1799.

The Crosby Mansion, just north of Route 6A near Nickerson State Park, is a massive 35-room house built in 1888 by Albert Crosby, a wealthy alcohol distiller. The home, which was built around the homestead in which Crosby was raised, would become an art gallery after his death in 1906. Today, the mansion is a museum but is only accessible to the public a few times per year.

The End in Orleans

Finally, the Old King's Highway runs through the heart of Orleans. Here, the official name of the road changes to the Cranberry Highway, but it's still part of historic Route 6A. Just off the highway is the French Cable Station Museum, providing an in-depth look at the undersea telegraphic cables used by the United States and France during World War One.

Just north of the museum is the Jonathan Young Windmill, which is unique because all of its original parts and mechanisms remain intact, despite the fact it was moved to Hyannis in 1897 and then back to Orleans in 1983. The windmill was constructed sometime around 1720 and now sits in a small park just off Route 6A.

Make a Day of Route 6A

After heading through Orleans, the Old King's Highway joins with Route 6, or the Mid-Cape Highway, where it runs through Eastham, Wellfleet, and Truro. Route 6A reappears in North Truro and heads through the heart of Provincetown, before coming to an end at Herring Cove Beach.

There are other historic sites to explore along Route 6, but that’s a journey for another day because if you stop at even a fraction of the museums and homes along the Old King’s Highway, you’ll quickly find it’s time to return to your vacation rental for some much-deserved relaxation.


Cape Cod Canal

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Cape Cod Canal, artificial waterway in southeastern Massachusetts, U.S. A part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, it joins Cape Cod Bay (northeast) with the waters of Buzzards Bay (southwest) and traverses the narrow isthmus of Cape Cod. The canal is 17.5 miles (28 km) long, including its dredged approaches. It has a width of 500 feet (152 metres) and a minimum depth of 30 feet (9 metres). There are no locks, but there are considerable tidal movements.

Begun in 1909 and put into operation in July 1914 by private capital, the canal cut the distance for waterborne traffic between New York City and Boston (via the East River, Long Island Sound, and the canal) by more than 75 miles (120 km) and also eliminated the treacherous, often windy voyage around the cape, especially through the shallows along the tip near Provincetown. The Cape Cod Canal was purchased by the U.S. government in 1927. It is operated toll free by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which also maintains the canal environs for recreational use.

This article was most recently revised and updated by Amy Tikkanen, Corrections Manager.


Cape Cod Canal Railroad Bridge – History, Facts

The Cape Cod Canal Railroad Bridge, also known as Buzzards Bay Railroad Bridge, it’s a vertical lift bridge located in Bourne, Massachusetts near Buzzards Bay.

Little history..

Between 1909 - 1914, the Cape Cod Canal was built serving as a private waterway, transforming Cape Cod into an island.

On account of that, the island needed a connection with the mainland, the rest of Massachusetts.

Before the actual bridge, there was a 2,200 tons Strauss trunnion Bascule Bridge, spanning about 160 foot, being pivoted on the north side of the Canal, using a single counterweight. The bridge had an opening of 140 feet for vessels, in the raised position.

By 1933, the U.S Government was already in canal possession. The US Army Corps of Engineers has been tasked with the mission of improving the canal. They did so by widening the waterway to nearly 500 feet, which required a new railroad bridge construction.

The U.S Army Corps of Engineers hired a few construction companies, Klapp, Parsons, Brinckeroff, Douglas of New York to supervise the construction and other companies to be in charge of the architectural phase of the bridge, those were McKim,Mead and White of New York.

So that’s when the construction began, with funding secured under the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933.

The Cap Code Canal Railroad Bridge

The new bridge was sited only 60 feet away from the old one, doing so, the engineers were able to save time and money in future rail tracks realignment.

The Cap Code Canal Railroad Bridge was assembled in the lowered position, in three sections. Starting with the sides and finishing with the center section, totaling 16-panels, 6 panels for each section. The Canal was closed for only 5 days, only when the center of the bridge was assembled.

On September, 20, 1935, just 2 years after the construction started, the Cap Canal Code Railroad Bridge was raised for the first time ever, and the first time crossed it on December 29, 1935.

With a total cost of 1,56 million dollars, when constructed it was the longest vertical lift railroad bridge in the world.

How does Cape Cod Railroad Bridge work?

The Cape Cod Railroad bridge is a vertical lift bridge, which means that the center span lifts up and down.

The 2,200-ton center span is counter-weighted with a 1,100 ton concrete filled steel-plated box that hangs in both towers. The span is connected to the counterweights by 40 steel cables.

At the top of each tower, there are four sheaves, each one has a 16-feet diameter and weights 34 tons. The sheaves turn, moving the cables that lower the span and raise the counterweights, using four electric powered motors, each supplying 150-HP.

With about 2 minutes and a half duration time for lifting or lowering the center span, this proved to be a very efficient and great way of solving the connection.

The Cape Cod Railroad Bridge - Today

Today the main use for the bridge is to haul material from a facility in Rochester, MA to Cape Cod, with trains hauling everyday, except on Sunday.

CapeFLYER uses the bridge for a seasonal passenger train. The rail over the bridge is owned by MassDOT.

The bridge has a total vertical clearance of 135 feet, and a total height of 271 feet. Carrying one track, the bridge is kept in the raised position until a train needs to cross.

The Cape Cod Railroad Bridge Rehabilitation

Between 2001 and 2003, the bridge underwent a massive rehabilitation, which included new counterweights cables, new electrical system, paint.


A history of the Cape Cod Canal

It was 100 years ago this year that the Cape Cod Canal first opened to vessel traffic. 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.

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.

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.

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…


About Orleans

Originally known as South Parish of Eastham, which was settled in 1644, Orleans became incorporated in 1797 after seeking independence since 1717. The Nauset Indians were the native people of the area. The relationship between the settlers and native Americans was peaceful and co-operative. The present Nauset Heights area was the farming site of the Indians. The last of their settlements lived in South Orleans.

Sea Captains and ordinary seamen of Orleans manned the merchant and whaling vessels during the age of sail.The sea has influenced the economy of Orleans from the beginning to the present. Salt works were located on the bay and Town cove shores. There were many domestic needs for salt and the fishing fleet's requirements were large for fish preservation. Finally with the discovery of salt deposits in the U.S. the salt-making industry became obsolete in the 1850s.

The fishing industry has waxed and waned through the years according to the supply. Fish weirs and small boat hand lining as well as coastal whaling thrived in the early years. Today there is a large charter boat sports fishing fleet located in Rock Harbor, which has been the Orleans center of maritime commerce and history.

The Indians initially taught the settlers about shell fishing. It has continued to be an excellent source and generally reliable monetary factor in good and bad economic times. Now aquaculture appears to have a successful future.

Packet boats were the mode of transportation of goods and people until the arrival of the railroad in 1865, which opened up other avenues of commerce such as pants manufacturing. The railroad spawned early tourism. The many needs of the town supplied by the railroad were taken over by cars and trucks. Railroad service to the town ceased in the 1950's.

Shipwrecks were a common occurrence until the Cape Cod Canal was built. The rescue and care of survivors were part of everyday life until the Massachusetts Humane Society composed of volunteers lead to the formation of the U.S. Life Saving Service in the 1870's. The salvage of shipwrecks and their cargoes became part of the economic structure.

Orleans is no stranger to enemy attack. The war of 1812 created great hardship on the Cape as Britain controlled and blockaded the towns of Cape Cod. An attack on Rock Harbor in December 1814 by the British Marines from H.M.S. Newcastle was swiftly repelled by the local militia with one fatality to the British.

Orleans has the distinction of being the only U.S. site of attack by the Germans in WWI. A German U-boat fired upon the tug Perth Amboy and four barges in the Nauset area in July 1918.

Farming was a constant factor from the beginning of the settlement. The once heavily forested area became decimated fuel to the creation of farming and pasture needs, lumber for housing, heating needs and the ship building requirements of both the English King and the colonists. Commercial agricultural products of the 1920's and 1930's was asparagus while cranberry harvesting was prevalent from the late 1800's to the 1930's.

The formerly barren landscape is now covered with trees and vegetation and people are very supportive of land conservation. The advent of the National Seashore Park in 1962 created the complete tourist economy of today. The charm and beauty of the town has created a large retirement population with a younger service population.


Watch the video: Fish of a lifetime 42 lb Striped bass fishing cape cod canal (December 2021).