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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.

The ceremony will also include the unveiling of a 10-foot bronze statue of a fisherman intended to honor the importance that fishing—in particular striped bass fishing—has had on the Cape Cod community as well as those who have dedicated their lives to the profession.

Following the ceremony, a parade of tugboats will float along the canal from 4 to 6 p.m., before giving way to a Buzzards Bay fireworks display, which starts at 9 p.m. “It’s going to be big,” Wentworth says of the extravaganza, funds for which were donated by local philanthropist David Mugar. “You will be able to see them from far and wide. There will be dogs howling everywhere.”

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

One of those taking part in the festivities will be Admiral Rick Gurnon, president of Massachusetts Maritime Academy. A resident of Buzzards Bay, Gurnon has worked at the academy for 35 years, he’s a co-chair of the centennial committee, and he loves the canal. “I walk the canal at least twice a day,” Gurnon says. “I have seen Russian submarines going through, Canadian submarines, giant car carriers.” Anything else? “I saw the H.M.S. Bounty go through on its last voyage,” he adds. “I’ve seen the Mayflower 2 coming and going from shipyard. And of course I’ve seen some unbelievably luxurious yachts, down to a kayak.”

In his walks, Gurnon has also spotted seals and porpoises in the canal and foxes and deer along its banks. “Some amazing stripers,” he adds, “get yanked out of that canal.” During one walk with his dog, Merlin, Gurnon took in yet another impressive sight: a finback whale, which he estimated to be 35-40 feet. “I heard,” he says, “the very distinctive sound of a blowhole.”

Gurnon says he views the canal as a success story—and one that has saved companies and by extension consumers, lots of money over the years. “The gasoline you put in your car,” he says, “the home heating oil that heats your home, the shoes that you put on your feet, they all came through the Cape Cod Canal.”

Traveling through the canal, he adds, is also safer for ships than going around it. Years ago, Gurnon says the major issue ships faced in sailing up or down the backside of the Cape, was if a big storm came along, they could literally be blown onto the beach—or destroyed in the process. “You couldn’t escape [the wind],” he says. “You had to get past Provincetown or Chatham.”

“It was dangerous,” he added. “You had to pay the equivalent of $1,000 in today’s money—the toll fee an average-sized vessel was charged to sail through the canal during its first two decades, adjusted for inflation—or risk losing your cargo, and your ship, and your ability to make more money.” With GPS and today’s forecasting capabilities, however, Gurnon says the round-the-Cape journey is no longer as treacherous.

In the first few years following the canal’s completion, Gurnon says the waterway was heavily used, but different problems—one-way traffic, too many turns, three lift bridges that would not always go up!—caused many ships to return to their longer, round-the-Cape route.

Following a German submarine attack on the tugboat Perth Amboy off the coast of Orleans during World War I, the federal government took control of the canal from August Belmont, operating it from 1918 to 1920. In 1928, the government purchased the canal outright, and in the following years invested heavily in a public works project that would deepen, widen, and straighten the canal, and complete the three canal bridges we know and use today.

Gurnon says there were two important decisions made during this expansion that helped the canal to remain viable over the years: the canal was deepened and the shipping toll was removed. “If it hadn’t been dug deeper,” he says, “it would not be commercially viable today.” Gurnon says most ships traveling between Boston and New York today travel through the canal. However, if the ship is sailing from New York to Nova Scotia, it will go around. “You’re already out there,” he says.

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

Gurnon says one feature of the canal continually amazes him: a pedestrian on shore can talk with a deckhand on a ship passing by, using only a slightly elevated voice. “You are that close to vessels underway,” he says. “Here in Massachusetts, you can literally be having a picnic lunch, and wave and say hello to a tugboat operator.”

Though an ardent canal supporter, Gurnon does count at least one negative side effect. “It artificially strengthens the parochial nature of the villages within the towns by the sheer distances between them,” he says. “Buzzards Bay is physically separated from Gray Gables . . . You can’t get there from here without a 15-minute car ride. You’ve seen the movie, A River Runs Through It? Well, the canal runs through Bourne. If you want to go to town hall, if you want to get your dog license, you’ve got to cross the bridge.”

Other issues? “The bridges,” Gurnon says, “were built in the 1930s, they are steel, and painted, and exposed to lots of tough, Cape Cod weather.” This means regular maintenance is required. The bridges, he added, are also rather narrow. With 10-foot lanes and no room for breakdowns, Gurnon says the spans have witnessed many head-on accidents over the years and would not pass construction codes were they being built today.

John MacPherson, assistant canal manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, says an appropriate description for the bridges is “structurally sound, functionally obsolete.” The corps, which owns the canal and bridges, directs all shipping traffic and is responsible for maintenance and renovation work; before embarking on a large-scale effort, though, the corps’ projects must be approved by Congress.

Samantha Gray, a park ranger for the corps, provided the following statistics. Including its breakwaters, the canal is approximately 17 miles long and a total of 13.5 miles of paved surface roads follow the waterway’s smooth curves. Each year, approximately 20,000 ships sail through the canal, while the two bridges handle 35 million annual vehicle trips.

The Cape Cod Canal Railroad Bridge is raised and lowered an average of three to four times each day, totaling about 1,000 annual events. The structure’s span weighs 2,200 tons and when moved up or down is equally balanced by two, 1,100-ton counterweights, one on each side. “It was beautifully engineered,” Gray says of the structure. “It’s not just functional; it’s aesthetically pleasing.”

The distance from the base of the three bridges’ spans to the water below at mean high tide is 135 feet. That means a ship’s ‘air draft’ must measure less than that. When the bridges were built in the 1930s, most commercial vessels could pass under easily but today that’s not always the case. The four-masted Russian barque, Kruzenshtern, for example, has visited Mass Maritime a few times, but with an air draft of 190 feet, it cannot sail under the bridges; it has to go around.

Speaking of ships, on July 26-27, visitors will have the opportunity to tour the tall ship, Charles W. Morgan, which will be docked at the academy. Built in 1841, the 113-foot wooden vessel had a lengthy career in the whaling industry—much of it out of New Bedford—and completed 37 voyages to locations around the globe. “She’s a national historic landmark,” says Dan McFadden of Mystic Seaport’s maritime museum, which owns the vessel.

Those who see the ship this summer, McFadden adds, will view it at its best. “We’re wrapping up a five-year, really extensive renovation,” McFadden says. “She’s basically in as good a condition as when she was launched in 1841. Once she’s rigged and done, she is going to look fantastic.” The Charles W. Morgan’s canal visit is part of a post-renovation journey the museum is calling her “38th Voyage.” The ship departs Mystic Seaport in May, sails to New London, Connecticut for ballasting and depth adjustments, and continues on to stops in Newport, Rhode Island, Boston, and here in Buzzards Bay.

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

Photo by Robert Manz

Also on July 26-27, Cape Cod Central Railroad will run passenger trains from the Buzzards Bay Depot, over the railroad bridge, and down along the canal to Sandwich—and back. If the 45-minute rail excursions are popular, the railroad may offer them again the following weekend. “I think it’s a cool way to celebrate the weekend,” says Kaylene Jablecki, the railroad’s sales and marketing manager. “Everyone likes that bridge, but you never get to go over it.”

Jablecki says the trains will feature presentations by local historians who will offer stories and information about the canal, the bridges, and more. “We’re excited to help celebrate the canal’s centennial,” Jablecki says, adding that train fares will be offered at a discount—$15 for adults, $10 for children—so more people can participate.

But ahoy! There are more centennial events on the horizon—and more ships! From July 25-28, visitors can also tour Eagle, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s 295-foot training ship that was built in Hamburg, Germany in 1936; the ship will be docked at Mass Maritime. From July 28-31, two additional vessels with impressive pedigrees will also be docked in the canal: the Kalmar Nyckel, a replica of a Colonial-era Dutch pinnace, and the Oliver Hazard Perry, a 200-foot tall ship named for a decorated U.S. Navy Captain who served in the War of 1812.

Additional activities slated for Saturday, July 26, make for a dizzying lineup. “It will be a crazy fun day,” Wentworth says. The Briggs-McDermott House in Bourne hosts a festival of music that day featuring tunes from the last 100 years. A few miles east, the Sandwich SeaFest—held this year in conjunction with that town’s 375th anniversary—will include a U.S. Coast Guard demonstration, festival attractions, and more.

Also on July 26, The Kingman Yacht Center in Cataumet hosts a day of events titled “Bass Ackwards,” and activities include a ‘poker race’ for motorboats. In the event, participants are given five locations to visit and at each they will acquire one playing card. At day’s end, the participants gather, show their cards, and see who has the best hand. Later that night, beginning at 9 p.m., a parade of lights will make its way along the canal. Boats alit from bow to stern will embark from Mass Maritime, travel eastward through the canal, before turning around in the bay. This flotilla is open to the public, and interested parties are encouraged to register.

In July and August, Hy-Line Cruises will offer special cruises featuring a narration of the canal’s history. Up above, Pilgrim Aviation is scheduling private aerial tours of the canal and its surroundings. With his love of history and vast civic experience, Bourne Selectman Ellis would be well equipped to lead such tours. “The canal is a genuine asset,” says Ellis, also a member of the town’s historical and preservation societies. “If someone comes to Cape Cod, that’s the first thing they see. It is an inconvenience, sometimes, but most everybody looks at it as a very positive thing. Bourne is actually one of the treasures on the Cape because everybody passes through the town, but doesn’t pay any attention to it. So we’re glad about that; we just have to handle all the traffic for the rest of the Cape.”

Ellis also enjoys the scenery. “You can sit down [on the banks] on any given day,” he says, “and watch ocean liners going through and fishing boats. It’s incredible. I’m looking out my window right now and there’s a tugboat going across.”

Despite these attractions, Ellis says the canal had a major impact on his town and he highlighted one earth-shattering event that set things in motion back in 1911. Late that year, canal workers cut through Willow Dam Road in Sagamore village, which at the time effectively served as both a dyke holding back the Scusset River and marshes, and a connection between the community’s north and south sides. After the cut, the water came, and though temporary and permanent bridges were quickly built, the village itself had been split. “What it did,” Ellis says, “it actually divided the community.”

Drilling and cutting through miles of mud, sand, and massive boulders, the builders of the Cape Cod Canal created advantages for years to come for those in the shipping and fishing industries, not to mention recreational boating, cycling, and rollerblading. At the same time, villages of Bourne and Sandwich were forever divided.

Today, a small nibble of Sandwich still exists on the north side of the canal. The area includes Scusset Beach and a residential neighborhood with wonderful water views. A mutual aid agreement exists between Bourne and Sandwich for police, fire, and EMS coverage for the area, but students in the district must drive or bus it over the Sagamore Bridge to get to Sandwich High. Inconvenient? Sure, but at least they don’t have to take the ferry!



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