Crossing The Cape Cod Canal In The Early 20th Century

Jun 24, 2019

A vessel passes beneath one of the original Cape Cod Canal bridges.
Credit courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Cape Cod Canal Field Office

There’s been renewed talk about replacing the two bridges that span the Cape Cod Canal. Most people agree that the aging structures aren’t sufficient to handle present-day vehicle traffic traveling on and off Cape Cod. And it’s not that different from a similar scenario which played out in 1914, when the canal was opened to provide a safer route for vessels.   

“The original canal looked different than the one today. That waterway was about 100 feet wide, versus the 480-foot wide waterway we have today.” said Samantha Gray, a Park Ranger with the U-S Army Corps of Engineers.

Samantha Gray is a Park Ranger with the Army Corps of Engineers.
Credit Brian Morris/WCAI

It also had a Bourne, a Sagamore and a railroad bridge. The Bourne and the Sagamore bridges were lift bridges with oak plank roadways. At the time, few people had automobiles, so the conflict between vessel traffic and vehicle traffic wasn’t much of an issue. 

You could walk, take a vehicle, or if you were going over the original Bourne bridge, you could take a trolley from New Bedford to Monument Beach. 

“The rail bridge was heavily used. It looked different than the rail bridge today. It was almost right next to where the current rail bridge is, but the lift was different. It only lifted to one side,” said Gray. 

The clearance underneath those original bridges was only about 40 feet, so they had to be lifted for any type of larger vessel passing through the canal.

The clearance under the original Canal bridges was only about 40 feet.
Credit courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Cape Cod Canal Field Office

“These structures were much smaller than the bridges today,” said Gray. Our bridges today, their width they span is 550 feet. The original bridges were 140 feet wide.”

Mariners originally were enthusiastic about the canal, as it offered an alternative to rounding the Cape and its dangerous shoals. But the currents in the original canal could be fast-moving and unpredictable, and often proved difficult for mariners to negotiate. And there was another big issue.

“You also had to pay a toll. So you combine the high tolls with the tricky currents, there were captains that were choosing to still go around versus going through the canal,” Gray explained.

The government stepped in and purchased the Cape Cod Canal in 1927, and the Army Corps of Engineers officially took over management of the waterway in 1928. It was quickly determined that the original canal needed to be much wider and deeper, and that two new bridges were needed to accommodate the growing amount of vehicle traffic. The current Bourne and Sagamore bridges were both constructed before the canal was widened.

Construction of the new Bourne and Sagamore bridges provided much-needed employment for about 700 local workers.
Credit courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Cape Cod Canal Field Office

As construction began, the country was still reeling from the Great Depression. Part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal included the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, which provided much of the funding for the two new bridges.  

“You had about 700 local men that were hired to work on these bridges,” said Gray. “When possible, they used manual labor versus machine labor so more people could be working. There were four shifts every day, again to maximize the number of people that could be working on these bridges. And the Bourne and the Sagamore and our railroad bridge were all built simultaneously in less than two years’ time.” 

During that time, the original bridges still stood.

This view shows 3 of the 6 bridges that spanned the Cape Cod Canal in 1935.
Credit courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Cape Cod Canal Field Office

“If you count the number of bridges spanning the Cape Cod Canal in 1935, you’re going to count six,” said Gray. 

Once the new bridges became fully functional, the old bridges were dismantled, although a few remnants can still be seen today in Bourne and Sagamore.