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.