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Cape Cod Canal celebrates a marvelous anniversary

Written into his contract for the construction of the Cape Cod Canal, August Belmont was also tasked with building two passenger bridges that would span the new waterway—one in Bourne, one in Sagamore—and a railroad bridge in Buzzards Bay. During the project’s buildout from 1909 to 1914, railroad lines that had run along the north side of the canal site, connecting the affluent village of Bournedale to points east and west, were moved to the opposite, south side of the canal, where space was more readily available.

Written into his contract for the construction of the Cape Cod Canal, August Belmont was also tasked with building two passenger bridges

To help the newly train-less commuters of Bournedale catch their morning train to Boston, Belmont also set up a passenger ferry, circa 1913, which crossed the canal at a point about one mile west of today’s Sagamore Bridge. Though the ferry, which remained in operation until the public works bridges were completed in 1935, helped travelers get to the new Bournedale station just across the canal, the ride was not for the faint of heart.

According to Bourne Selectman Donald “Jerry” Ellis, as the 20-foot vessel and its small engine puttered across the waterway—then a distance of about 140 feet—it often got caught up in the canal’s swift currents, and was swept off course. The result for passengers on board was an occasional, unexpected trip to Sagamore Village. “The ferry lasted quite a number of years,” Ellis says. “There are lots of funny stories of the ferry floating down the canal, or catching fire. It presented a real problem of getting from one town to another.”

It was solving a problem—a different one—that served as the impetus for the canal’s construction in the first place. Dangerous waterways off the Cape’s eastern coast and through Nantucket Sound had for hundreds of years beached, sunk, and destroyed countless ships at sea, claiming the lives of many aboard. The Pilgrims themselves curtailed dreams of reaching the Hudson River—seeking shelter in Provincetown, then Plymouth—when their Mayflower was tossed and turned in the waters of the Sound. Further, connecting Cape Cod Bay to Buzzards Bay by canal would shorten the shipping distance from one town (Boston) to another (New York City) by 62 nautical miles.

Solving problems. Creating new ones. Providing unforeseen blessings and challenges. Dividing communities and forever transforming the peninsula of Cape Cod into an island, albeit a manmade one. In 2014, residents and community members of Bournedale, Sagamore, and the rest of the Cape—and beyond—celebrate the centennial anniversary of the Cape Cod Canal, the region’s manmade waterway wonder.
“The Cape Cod Canal is such a huge part of a lot of people’s memories of the Cape,” says Sue Wentworth, managing director of the Cape Cod Canal Centennial Committee. “It is a gateway.” Established in 2011 to prepare for the anniversary, the committee has scheduled many events throughout the year to commemorate the occasion. “Everybody is getting involved in it,” Wentworth says. “There’s going to be a great energy, a great spirit in the area. Lots of fun things to do.”

Most of the festivities run from July 25 through August 3, with an official ceremony to be held Tuesday, July 29, from 2 to 4 p.m. at Buzzards Bay Park in Bourne. That day—July 29—will be 100 years to the date when the canal was officially opened for waterway traffic back in 1914. Local politicians, dignitaries, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials will be on hand and the Cape Cod Symphony Youth Orchestra will perform an original piece written for the occasion.

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