Note: This story first appeared in the November-December, 2012 issue of the Gypsy Journal.
Recognizing that a waterway across the seven mile wide isthmus of Cape Cod, connecting Buzzards Bay and Cape Cod Bay, would be a great trade boon between the Plimoth Colony, local Indian villages, and the Dutch merchants sailing from New York, Captain Miles Standish of Pilgrim fame was the first to propose the construction of a manmade canal. But the project was too immense for his small band of settlers.
During the Revolutionary War, George Washington saw a need for a canal to help protect the American fleet from British blockades and ordered a survey of what would eventually become the Cape Cod Canal. But with the end of the war, the new nation had other, more important priorities and nothing was ever accomplished.
The sea route around Cape Cod to Boston Harbor has always been treacherous, taking a heavy toll on ships and sailors who ventured too close to the outer banks. During the late 1880s, shipwrecks happened at the rate of one every two weeks.
Over the years, several attempts were made by private companies to build a canal, but all failed due to the overwhelming costs of such a project. Finally in 1904, a wealthy financier named August Perry Belmont became interested in the project. He purchased the Boston, Cape Cod, and New York Canal Company, which had held a charter for canal construction since 1899. Belmont hired William Barclay Parsons, a respected civil engineer, to head the project.
Digging began in 1909, and despite many hardships and setbacks, continued until the Cape Cod Canal officially opened on July 29, 1914. But there were several drawbacks that kept the Canal from becoming a success.
Tolls were as much as $16 for a commercial schooner, which was a considerable amount of money in those days. At only 100 feet wide and rather shallow, many ship captains felt the canal was not adequate for their vessels and continued to make the dangerous passage around the Cape. Belmont had accomplished the Herculean task of building the Canal, but it was a financial failure.
Finally, the Federal government stepped in and purchased the Canal on March 30, 1928. An improvement project was launched, widening the channel to nearly 500 feet, and dredging it to 32 feet deep, removing 30 million cubic yards of earth in the process. The 1,400 jobs created by the Canal project during the Great Depression was an economic help to the region, and the new, improved Cape Cod Canal became the widest sea-level canal in the world. With its completion, ship traffic could safely transit the waterway, and now over 20,000 vessels of all types use the Canal annually, at no fee.
In addition to becoming a navigational aid, the Canal also provides an abundance of recreational opportunities. People come to the Canal to fish, to boat, to bike or walk the paved service roads that parallel both sides of the waterway, to picnic, or just to sit and watch the parade of marine traffic pass by.
The Cape Cod Canal Visitor Center, located at 60 Ed Moffitt Drive in Sandwich, Massachusetts, has displays on the history of the canal and its role in navigation, including the retired Coast Guard patrol boat Renier, a collection of nautical knots, and a small book store.
Park rangers and volunteers on duty at the Visitor center are happy to provide information and answer questions on the Canal, and interactive exhibits are popular with both children and adults. The small theater shows videos on the construction of the Canal, local wildlife, and natural history.
During the Summer and Fall, the Visitor Center offers a wide variety of interpretive programs, including natural and cultural history hikes, beach explorations, a Junior Ranger program, and an evening lecture series.
We enjoyed exploring the 45 foot long Renier during our visit to the Visitor Center. Built in 1969, the patrol boat was powered by twin Detroit diesel engines and was specially designed for service on the Canal in all kinds of weather.
The Marine Traffic Control exhibit explains how the Corps of Engineers manages marine traffic through the canal, and visitors can view live ship traffic on radar screens and camera monitors.
The Cape Cod Canal Visitor Center was a fun stop and we learned a lot during our visit. There is a lot to see and do for visitors of all ages. The Visitor Center is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from early May through late October, and admission is free. The parking lot is too small to accommodate large RVs, so plan on visiting in your tow vehicle. For more information call (508) 833-9678.
Be sure to enter our latest Free Drawing. We have a great prize for you this time around! Marianne Edwards from Boondockers Welcome is donating a membership for this week’s lucky winner. That can save you a ton of money in your RV travels! To enter, all you have to do is click on this Free Drawing link or the tab at the top of this page and enter your name in the comments section at the bottom of that page (not this one). Only one entry per person per drawing please, and you must enter with your real name. To prevent spam or multiple entries, the names of cartoon or movie characters are not allowed. The winner will be drawn Sunday evening.
Thought For The Day – How can you say the sky is the limit when there are footprints on the moon?