Each year, hundreds of thousands of vacationers cross over the Cape Cod Canal using one of three bridges. For decades, the steel structures have been a staple of daily life – for both Cape Codders and the visitors that flock to the area’s beaches. 

But the bridges there now are not the original structures. And the canal that people cross today for a day at one of the many beaches on Cape Cod is much different from that one that first opened in 1914.   

Producer Dave Fraser takes us on a journey to explore the history of the Cape Cod Canal.  

Explore more of the natural beauty of the Cape in this video essay surveying the Cape Cod National Seashore.

This segment originally aired on January 13, 2022.

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: If you’ve ever visited Cape Cod, you’ve crossed over the Cape Cod Canal using one of three bridges.

 For decades, these steel structures have been a staple of daily life for both locals and visitors alike. But it wasn’t always this way; there was a time when the land was connected, before the creation of the widest sea-level canal in the world — which turned Cape Cod from a peninsula into an island.

Producer Dave Fraser takes us on a journey to explore the history of the canal and the impact that it had on the Cape.   

Dave Fraser, Connecting Point: For many of us who travel to the Cape, we feel as though we have not made it until we’ve crossed the bridge. The Sagamore, Bourne, and Railroad bridges have become the unofficial gateway to Cape Cod.

But did you ever wonder about the canal that those bridges traverse?

Today, it is an important waterway for navigators and a recreational resource for many, but the idea for the canal dates back to the 1620s.

Timothy Orwig, Author of “Cape Cod Canal”: There were two rivers here before, the Scusset and the Manomet, that both went inland, but kind of in different directions. And it had been a place where the Wampanoag would carry their canoes across from one river to the other, when they were crossing from the Cape Cod Bay to Buzzards Bay.

Sixteen twenty three, you had Miles Standish saying we should put a canal through here.

Dave Fraser: Meanwhile, the treacherous outer shores of Cape Cod stranded many ships, claiming nearly a wreck a week, according to historians during the height of the commercial shipping era, giving the outer cape the ominous nickname of the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

Don Wilding, Cape Cod Author & Historian: This was basically an avenue of commerce. Ships had to go around here between Boston and New York.

It was estimated that between 1626 and the mid-20th century, there were between three thousand and four thousand shipwrecks along Cape Cod’s outer beach.

Dave Fraser: Attempts to build a canal had been unsuccessful until, in 1904, a wealthy financier named August Belmont moved ahead with a plan to connect the Monomet and Scusset Rivers. Along with civil engineer William Barclay Parsons, Belmont was confident they could succeed where others had failed.

In June of 1909, construction started on the canal. Dredges of various sizes dug from each bay toward the middle. Bad weather, clay, and large boulders slowed the progress. A narrow gauge railroad was installed to move dirt and equipment back and forth.

Timothy Orwig: They finally come to this center point that they’ve set up Foley’s Dike, and that’s the place where they have the ceremony of the joining of the waters.

And they cut through, and suddenly Cape Cod Bay and Buzzards Bay are connected.

Dave Fraser: Two drawbridges and a railroad bridge were installed, along with a passenger ferry to allow people to cross the canal.

Belmont’s canal, however, never achieved the level of traffic or revenue its investors had envisioned, and in the end it was deemed a financial failure.

Timothy Orwig: He did it entirely with his own funding and funding that he was able to get together, with the idea that he would be able to pay it off and make a profit from the tolls.

Well, that never really happened for a number of reasons, and I think that probably Belmont ended up losing money on the canal.

Dave Fraser: Seeing value in this waterway, the U.S. government purchased the canal in 1928 and began construction to widen and deepen it, as well as build three new bridges.

Samantha Gray, US Army Corps. of Engineers: Now, all three bridges that were constructed along the Cape Cod Canal were financed underneath the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933. That’s your New Deal program.

About $4.6 Million dollars was allocated to the canal, and it put many local people to work during that construction.

Dave Fraser: Both bridges, the Sagamore and Bourne, are the same height as the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. Thousands of cars and trucks cross over them daily, more so in the summertime.

The Railroad bridge was the longest of its kind when it was built. Aided by counterweights, it takes two and a half minutes for the center span to lower for approaching trains.

Today, the Cape Cod Canal is not only a navigable waterway, snaking its way between Cape Cod Bay and Buzzards Bay, it is a recreational resource for fishing, biking, and sightseeing.

Samantha Gray: We see roughly about 15,000 vessels that go through the Cape Cod Canal every year. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates a marine traffic control center that allow us to communicate with and track all vessels.

There’s a little bit more than 11,000 acres of federal lands that surround the canal. And we’re visited by about 3 million people annually.

Timothy Orwig: It’s a really important engineering marvel. It’s still the widest sea-level canal in the world. And, you know, it make Cape Cod an island. It wasn’t a peninsula anymore.