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Cape Cod Canal celebrates a marvelous anniversary

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.

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