Ever wonder how the Cape Cod Canal came to be?

Cape Cod Life  /  April 2019 /

Writer: James P. Freeman

Ever wonder how the Cape Cod Canal came to be?


Cape Cod Life  /  April 2019 /

Writer: James P. Freeman

The Gilded Age’s Gift to Cape Cod:
A Modern Waterway

August Perry Belmont Jr. was a product of his age, in an age that needed his products.

The Gilded Age—a period roughly from post-Civil War Reconstruction (1865) up to the first Progressive Era (early 1900s)—represented the dawn of modern America as it approached the new century. It was a time marked by energetic entrepreneurship, industrial vitality, technical invention and innovation. Commerce was transformed by new developments in steel, petroleum, electrification, transportation and finance. Engineering advances produced the transcontinental railroad, the telephone and the light bulb. New technologies yielded elevators, skyscrapers, trolleys, subways, bridges, and canals.

With little regulation and fierce allegiance to laissez-faire capitalism, vast monopolies and interlocking trusts were created by titans like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan. 

Nearly forgotten was August Belmont Sr. Belmont was among the defining figures of the Gilded Age. He emigrated from Prussia in 1816 and later founded August Belmont & Company, a Wall Street firm. He was a fixture of New York’s high society and his lavish lifestyle reportedly was the inspiration for Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” (1920). By the time of his death in 1890, he left $50 million to his wife and four surviving children.

Belmont’s second son, August Belmont Jr., was a builder and financier. He built New York City’s first subway (Interborough Rapid Transit) in 1904 and was a major figure in Thoroughbred racing (New York’s Belmont Racetrack). He also served as a major in the U.S. Army during WWI, in his 60s. But, arguably, Belmont’s crowning achievement was the Cape Cod Canal.

In “Images of America: Cape Cod Canal,” Timothy T. Orwig wrote that the need to find a shortcut across Cape Cod was “ancient.” Given its treacherous currents and shifting shoals, passage around the Outer Cape was fraught with danger and known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Ever since the Sparrowhawk went down in 1626 off Orleans, over 2,700 wrecks and 700 lost lives have been recorded around the Cape, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Not to mention untold tonnage in cargo.

Courtesy of the Bourne Archives Committee

As early as 1623, Miles Standish, military leader of Plymouth Colony, advocated building a canal. In 1697, a Massachusetts General Court resolution called for “a passage [to] be cut through the land at Sandwich from Barnstable Bay.” Remarkably, in 1776, George Washington authorized the first of many surveys to consider the feasibility of such an undertaking. And by the late 1800s, President Chester Arthur saw the prospect of a canal as a military asset and considered coastal waterways among his highest priorities. 

Nevertheless, nearly three centuries of legislative ineptitude combined with virtually no heavy industry, made the project impossibly impractical. That is until the early 20th century saw a coalescing of financial power, industrial power, and will power. 

Taken in 1942, this aerial view of the modernized canal from the East End (Sandwich) shows the wide open waterway that expedited marine traffic for the modern age. Photo Courtesy of the Sandwich Town Archives.

Technically, there was a crude canal that had already sliced through the peninsula. That distinction belonged to what was known as “Jeremiah’s Gutter” (also known as “Jeremiah’s Dream” and “Jeremiah’s Drain”). It formed naturally after The Great Storm of 1717 and made travel between Orleans Town Cove (fed from the Atlantic Ocean) and Eastham’s Boat Meadow Creek (fed from Cape Cod Bay) possible. In 1804 a canal was first dug over this periodically flooding lowland owned by Jeremiah Smith. According to Robin Smith-Johnson in “Cape Cod Curiosities,” “It was also used as an escape route by local boatmen in the War of 1812.” But by 1817, 100 years later, it was effectively impassable.  

Belmont was perfectly suited for the gargantuan task at hand. Construction of the new canal was a personal as well as professional endeavor for him. Author and historian J. North Conway makes the connection in his wonderfully engaging book, “The Cape Cod Canal: Breaking Through the Bared and Bended Arm.” While Belmont was motivated by profit—improving transport of raw materials and finished products in and out of New England via shipping through a toll canal—he had personal ties to the Cape, despite his New York roots. “Part of Belmont’s… reason for involving himself in the digging of the Cape Cod Canal,” writes Conway, “was due to his deep affection for his maternal grandfather, Commodore Matthew Perry, who lived on Cape Cod.” Perry is credited with opening trade with Japan to the West in 1854. So it was appropriate that the ceremonial first shovelful of earth commemorating the inaugural of the Cape’s Big Dig occurred on June 22, 1909 at the Perry farm in Bourne. 

The sheer scale of the undertaking and associated disruption was not without controversy. Harper’s Weekly in 1908 lamented that “the new conditions which must prevail on the peninsula will cause the disappearance of the simple and unaffected people…” The magazine did recognize that “40,000 vessels pass around the Cape annually… while only between 3,000 and 4,000 ships traverse the Suez Canal during the same length of time.” A year and a half later, the same publication  wrote more approvingly of “The Conquest of Cape Cod.” Shortening the trip by 74 miles between Boston and Southern ports, “it is in the saving of lives, ships and cargoes that the canal will be chiefly valuable.”

Belmont, like businessmen of his day, insisted the project not involve government intervention. His chief engineer, William Barclay Parsons (Belmont’s engineer for the subway and a member of the Panama Canal Commission), underscored such sentiments before the Boston Chamber of Commerce in May 1910. “This is a private enterprise,” Parsons said, “supported by private capital invested under a state charter… asking for neither federal, nor state, nor municipal aid.” And it should come as no surprise that Belmont employed Gilded Age financing structures to make the canal a reality. His Boston, Cape Cod and New York Canal Company bid out a contract to build the canal. Nonetheless, Cape Cod Construction Company was the winner. A company controlled by Belmont.

The Cape Cod Canal in the process of being built at the beginning of the 20th century. What was previously a narrow and restrictive waterway would ultimately become the widest (at sea-level) canal in the world.

The Bourne Bridge was finished in May 1911 followed by the Buzzards Bay Railroad Bridge (November 1911) and Sagamore Bridge (February 1913). An engineering and picturesque marvel spanning 13 miles, the new canal was 25 feet deep and roughly 125 feet wide. It cost over $11,000,000 to build. Over 16 million cubic yards of sand, stone, clay and glacial boulders were removed. And six unnamed men lost their lives.

The new waterway opened to great fanfare in a ceremony on July 29, 1914. Among the dignitaries in attendance was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Even President Woodrow Wilson wrote a “hearty congratulations.” 

Courtesy of the Sandwich Town Archives.
Courtesy of the Sandwich Town Archives.

World war and a new progressive direction in America changed everything. Just the day prior to the grand opening, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, auguring WWI. At President Wilson’s direction, the United States Railroad Administration took control of the canal in July 1918. After the war, in April 1919, the government filed a petition to begin condemnation proceedings to formally acquire the canal. 

August Belmont Jr. died in December 1924. After years of legal, political and financial haggling, the sale of the Cape Cod Canal took place in April 1928. The Belmont estate received a mere $4.5 million in proceeds. And based upon Belmont’s overall investment, J. North Conway estimates the estate lost nearly $5 million. 

A dredge at work in the Cape Cod Canal shows the narrowness of the canal.  Below: August Belmont and his crew inspect the work on the canal.  Bottom: The New York Times, June 30, 1912. Courtesy of the Sandwich Town Archives.

Congress gave authority to the United States Army Corps of Engineers to take over operation and maintenance of the canal. Work began to effect badly needed improvements: widening and deepening the canal, and constructing new bridges. The modernization of the Cape Cod Canal became a public works program. Leisure would complement commerce. A sprawling federal government acted like a die grinder to temper the sharp edges of the Gilded Age. Power shifted away from unbridled titans to Washington bureaucrats. 

The new and improved canal was squarely a by-product of progressive policies put into place during the Great Depression. New Deal programs like the Public Works Administration, Emergency Relief Act, and Rivers and Harbors Act in the mid-1930s helped finance the $37,000,000 cost. Several hundred workers helped build the two distinctive vehicular bridges and unique vertical-lift Railroad Bridge, still standing and functioning 84 years later. Toll free. 

Perhaps fittingly, a black and white postcard of the sparkling new Sagamore Bridge dated June 22, 1935 (the official dedication of the rebuilt canal) noted that “Mrs. August Belmont parted the ribbon.” 

The former drawbridge that was replaced by the Sagamore Bridge. The Keith Car &
Manufacturing Company, in operation from 1846 to 1928 manufacturing railroad cars in the village of Sagamore, can be seen in the background.

Mark Twain’s novel “The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today” was a biting satirical commentary about a by-gone age. His work exposed the appearance of gross materialism, political corruption, corporate greed and widening social inequality just beneath the surface of glossy, heady progress. 

Twain actually traversed Cape Cod before Belmont’s canal became reality.  

“‘This, gentlemen,’ said Jeff, ‘is Columbus River, alias Goose Run. If it was widened, and deepened, and straightened, and made, long enough, it would be one of the finest rivers in the western country.’”

Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner “The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today” (1873)

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