Cape Cod Canal
Review and History

Cape Cod Canal is a man-made waterway that joins Cape Cod Bay to Buzzards Bay in southeastern Massachusetts. Cape Cod Canal goes across the Cape Cod isthmus. Cape Cod Canal is about 68 kilometers (42 miles) east-southeast of Providence, Rhode Island, and about 76 kilometers (47.5 miles) south-southeast of Boston.

Cape Cod Canal is part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. Cape Cod Canal is 28 kilometers (17.5 miles) long and about 165 meters (540 feet) wide. Although it does not contain locks, there are significant tidal movements in the Cape Cod Canal.

Port History

In 1623, the Plimoth Colony's Miles Standish was the first person to suggest creating a link between Cape Bay and Buzzards Bay. The first Cape Cod Canal project was too difficult for the pilgrims who settled the Cape Cod isthmus.

The American Revolution created recognition of the importance of linking the two water bodies when the American's needed a way to bypass the harbor blockades operated by the British. In 1776, George Washington ordered a Continental Army Engineer, Thomas Machin, to study the feasibility of creating a Cape Cod Canal. Machin recommended building a canal, and his work is the first recorded survey for the Cape Cod Canal. Even so, the job of a Cape Cod Canal was simply too big to undertake.

It was August Belmont, a financier from New York, and the advent of modern engineering that finally made the Cape Cod Canal a reality in the late 1800s. Belmont formed the Boston, Cape Cod, and New York Canal Company in 1899. He employed civil engineer William Barclay Parsons to conduct a feasibility study for the Cape Cod Canal. Based on the results from the study, Belmont broke ground in 1909, vowing to complete the task.

In 1910, the 49-meter (160-foot) Buzzards Bay Railroad Bridge across Cape Cod Canal was finished. In the following two years, the Bourne and Sagamore highway bridges were opened. All of the bridges operated by electricity. Designed to provide openings of 42.7 meters (140 feet), the bridge openings were too narrow to assure safe passage for large vessels traveling the Cape Cod Canal.

Belmont's Cape Cod Canal had its grand opening in July 1914. An elaborate opening ceremony included an Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Franklin Delano Roosevelt), the destroyer McDougall, the Rose Standish (an excursion steamer), and Belmont's 25-meter (81-foot) yacht. Belmont achieved his goal of opening the Cape Cod Canal before the canal in Panama was opened. The Cape Cod Canal beat the Panama Canal by 14 days.

Belmont's expensive toll waterway demanded that mariners using the Cape Cod Canal pay up to $16 for per trip. The new Cape Cod Canal was both narrow and shallow (4.6 meters or 15 feet), so many ships did not use it. They relied on the longer trip around the cape, and the Cape Cod Canal lost money.

As the canal was continually deepened, traffic on the Cape Cod Canal increased. In 1915, it reached a depth of 6.1 meters (20 feet), and almost 2700 vessels used the canal. In 1916, over 4.6 thousand vessels carrying 3.5 million tons of cargo used the Cape Cod Canal.

As early as 1915, Belmont tried to get the US Government to buy the Cape Cod Canal. During World War I, attacks by German submarines led President Woodrow Wilson to call on the Federal Railroad Administration to take over Cape Cod Canal management and operations. When the war was over, Belmont unwillingly took operations back while he negotiated for the sale of the Cape Cod Canal to the government.

In 1928, the United States Government bought the Cape Cod Canal. The Belmont toll was removed, and a major improvement project began. Moving 22.9 million cubic meters (30 million cubic yards) of earth, the US Army Corps of Engineers deepened the Cape Cod Canal to 9.8 meters (32 feet) and widened it to 152.4 meters (500 feet). It took 1400 men to accomplish the task during the Great Depression. Completed in 1940, the Cape Cod Canal was the world's widest sea-level canal at that time.

The Corps of Engineers built two new fixed bridges on high ground so that large ocean-going vessels could traverse the Cape Cod Canal. The Rivers and Harbors Act of 1935 authorized the construction of the modern Cape Cod Canal, and the project was completed in 1940. In the first year, the wider, deeper canal brought three times the vessels and eight times the cargo that had traversed Belmont's canal. Today, traffic using the Cape Cod Canal mirrors the industrial and commercial life of New England.

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