Construction of Cape Cod Canal Saves Lives, Cargo, and Time

July 1, 2015
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June marks the month when construction began on the Cape Cod Canal in Barnstable County, Massachusetts. The idea of constructing a canal to eliminate the costly and dangerous sea trip around the Massachusetts peninsula of Cape Cod was envisioned as early as 1623 by Pilgrim leader Miles Standish. Standish recognized that a waterway connecting Buzzards Bay and Cape Cod Bay would facilitate trade between Plymouth colony, Native American Indians, and the Dutch merchants sailing from New York. Although such an undertaking was far beyond the means of the small colony, the proposal by Standish gave birth to the idea of building the canal. In 1697, the General Court of Massachusetts considered the first formal proposal to build the canal, but took no action. Over the next 200 years, numerous plans for a canal across Cape Cod were envisioned but all became stalled in planning or execution.

It was not until 1906, when financier August Belmont – the primary backer of New York City’s first subway – became involved, that sufficient funds for the project could be raised. Belmont chose the subway’s chief engineer, William Barclay Parsons, to be the canal’s project director. One year earlier, Parsons had sided with the majority of the Panama Canal commission in recommending that “The Big Ditch” be built as a sea-level canal without locks. Parsons and the other commissioners were eventually overruled in Panama, but with the Cape Cod Canal he proved that a 17.5-mile, sea-level canal without locks could function, accommodating a difference in tides at each end of almost three hours and nearly 5 feet.

Acting on favorable results from Parsons’ engineering study, Belmont initiated construction of the Cape Cod Canal. On June 22, 1909, Belmont ceremoniously lifted the first shovelful of earth at Bournedale, promising “not to desert the task until the last shovelful has been dug.” By April 1914, only one dam separated the waters of Cape Cod Bay from Buzzards Bay. To celebrate the progress, Belmont blended bottles of water from both bays before opening the final sluiceway. As the waters trickled through, Belmont and Parsons shook hands, marking the long-awaited completion of the canal.

cape-cod-canal-belmont_resized On July 29, 1914, the Cape Cod Canal opened as a privately operated toll waterway. The Parade of Ships included the destroyer McDougall, carrying then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Belmont had achieved his objective of opening the Cape Cod Canal before the Panama Canal, which opened 17 days later on August 15, 1914.

In the two decades before 1915, more than 135 ships were wrecked, 63 lives were lost, and $1.6 million in cargo was destroyed in attempts to travel around Cape Cod. Originally 480 feet wide and 34 feet deep, the canal was enlarged in 1940, making it the widest canal in the world. Passage through the canal saves 135 miles by not having to use the route around Cape Cod, and bypasses the dangerous shoals and unpredictable currents surrounding the Outer Cape.

Average high-tide waters move through the canal at 4 to 5 mph. Tides accentuated by a full moon or other conditions can increase the current to 7 mph or more. Parsons’ engineering calculations showed that the current created by the varying tides at the ends of the Cape Cod Canal would prevent ice from forming and eliminate the need for maintenance dredging. Three years after the canal opened, he published a landmark paper on tidal canal hydraulics.

Originally financed as a toll passageway for $16 million, the canal was purchased in 1928 for $11.4 million by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has operated it toll-free ever since and maintains the surrounding area for recreational use. The Cape Cod Canal was dedicated as an ASCE National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1985.

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