The Big Ditch: the Cape Cod Canal – by Charlotte Canelli

Charlotte Canelli is the library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts.  Read Charlotte’s column in the August 7, 2014 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

The Panama Canal and the Cape Cod Canal both opened the same year – 1914.  The Cape Cod Canal, 7 miles long, opened to some traffic on July 29 just one day after the start of World War One (or the Great War) on July 28.  The Panama Canal, 48 miles long, opened two weeks later on August 15. These amazing feats of engineering may have started years before by entrepreneurial investors, but both were completed as American ventures.

The centennial of these two principal waterways were celebrated this summer.  The Panama Canal has, of course, world significance as it provides a water route between the two oceans, or more accurately from the Caribbean Sea through the Isthmus of Panama to the Gulf of Panama at the Atlantic Ocean. Noted author David McCullough wrote “The Path Between the Seas” (2001), the story of the 400 years of blood, sweat and tears and the eventual successful building of the Panama Canal. The canal’s rich history includes its ownership by several countries and partnerships, its triumphant completion by the United States government, and its final control by the Panamanian government in 1999.

Obviously, some New Englanders have seen the Panama Canal while on cruises or while traveling in Central America.  In contrast, there are probably few New Englanders who have not travelled over the Cape Cod Canal, sometimes nicknamed the Big Ditch.

Dreams of creating a waterway that crossed over Cape Cod from Sandwich to Buzzard’s Bay began soon after people arrived in Massachusetts in the 17th century. Ships travelling north or south along Massachusetts’ coastlines were met with shifting currents and underwater boulders and reefs around the arm of the Cape. Two rivers, the Manomet and the Scusset, penetrated the land from the western and eastern sides – but they did not meet.  At least a mile of land prohibited water traffic from crossing the isthmus.  Surveys of a possible project were conducted over the course of two centuries until work seriously began in 1909 by the Boston, Cape Cod and New York Canal Company, a private venture. Although the completed canal was a first a difficult and treacherous journey, successful completion essentially cut travel around the outermost and southern Cape from 62 to 7 miles.

While one might technically call Cape Cod an island (cut off from the rest of the state), three bridges were constructed in the early part of the 20th century: The Buzzards Bay Railroad Bridge in 1910, the Bourne Bridge in 1911 and the Sagamore in 1913. The original depth of the canal was only 15 feet due to many glacial boulders deposited in the Ice Age that lay in the path of men and machinery attempting to cut through.

Soon after the United States became involved in World War I, German U-Boats were patrolling waters off of Cape Cod.  The subsequent shelling attack on the Perth Amboy tug and her barges moved President Woodrow Wilson to proclaim that the Cape Cod Canal would now be under United States government control (or more accurately the Federal Railroad Administration, a subordinate agency to the Department of War.) In 1927, the canal was sold to the United States government.

Work directed and performed by the Army Corps of Engineers during the next few decades increased the depth and width of the channel and redesigned and rebuilt the bridges spanning the waterway. The projects were funded by the Federal government through the Public Works Administration and the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933. The new railroad bridge, with its 544-foot horizontal length, was at one time the longest in the world. The highway bridges rise 135 feet above high water.

Today, the Cape Cod Canal Bikeway runs along the southern side for 8 miles between the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges. Each year, bikers ride in the Pan-Mass Challenge (and fundraiser) and travel the 111 miles from Sturbridge to Provincetown over the Bourne Bridge and along the bikeway. It continues through Sandwich and beyond and is held the first weekend in August.

It was between these bridges on July 29, 2014 that fireworks (said to rival those off the Boston Esplanade on the 4th of July) were set off to celebrate the 100-year history of the original canal.  For a week, events and festivities led up to the centennial celebration. A website devoted entirely to the Cape Cod Canal Centennial (dot com) also celebrated the 375th anniversary of the towns of Sandwich, Barnstable and Yarmouth.

You can read more about the building of the Cape Cod Canal on official sites of the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Cape Cod Canal Chamber of Commerce. Minuteman libraries have a some of the original engineering documents and books of interest.  These include “The Cape Cod Canal: Breaking Through the Bared and Bended Arm” by J. North Conway (History Press, 2008.)  The book is in its fifth printing which is evidence in the interest in the Cape Cod Canal.  Conway explores the entire history of the need for the canal and the fits and starts of the project through the 1914 opening, including the story of August Belmont, Jr., financier of the project.  Historic New England’s Images of America series includes two.  One, written by Timothy T. Orwig, “The Cape Cod Canal” and the other, “The Military History of the Cape Cod Canal” by Gerard Butler.  Both include hundreds of original photographs with plenty of description.

 

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