Cape Cod Canal celebrates 100th anniversary

The canal’s railroad and Bourne bridges in 2014.
The canal’s railroad and Bourne bridges in 2014.Cape Cod Canal Region Chamber
A dredger digging the Cape Cod Canal in 1914.
A dredger digging the Cape Cod Canal in 1914. Cape Cod Canal Region Chamber

The next time you’re sitting in traffic at the Sagamore Bridge on your way to Cape Cod, quit your moaning; instead consider life before the dredging of the man-made Cape Cod Canal. Before the linking of the two bays — Cape Cod Bay and Buzzards Bay — ships had to navigate around the Outer Cape, encountering treacherous waters filled with dangerous shoals, strong currents, and sudden storms. It’s said that there was a shipwreck every week or two.

The Cape Cod Canal has a storied history. The idea of building a canal, lopping off 65 to 160 or so miles (depending on your route) dates to the Pilgrims. As early as 1623, Myles Standish of Plymouth Colony explored the notion of a canal, and for the next 250 years, there were several studies and proposals.


In 1880, the Cape Cod Canal Co. brought in about 500 laborers, with shovels and wheelbarrows, to dig a canal but failed. Over the next 27 years, other attempts were made, all unsuccessful. Finally, in 1907, August Belmont, a New York banker, purchased the charter to build a canal, and in July 1914, the Cape Cod Canal opened as a toll seaway. Today, the canal, one of the widest sea-level canals (without locks) in the world, draws more than 3 million visitors each year, and more than 20,000 ships pass through the 17.5-mile waterway annually.

The National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year with a variety of special events, festivals, tours, and guided walks and cruises. Here are five ways to explore (and enjoy) the Cape Cod Canal this summer. For more information, visit www.capecodcanalchamber.org.


Start at the Cape Cod Canal Visitors Center in Sandwich (60 Ed Moffitt Drive, 508-833-9678, www.nae.usace.army.mil/Missions/Recreation/CapeCodCanal.aspx), where you can board a retired patrol boat, watch live radar of the ships in the canal, and take a virtual boat ride through the waterway. Museum exhibits and interpretive programs describe the history, engineering, and environment of the canal. Did you know that the canal is home to a diverse population of wildlife, including mink, loons, osprey, rat snakes, and diamondback terrapins? The US Army Corps of Engineers Park Rangers lead a variety of guided tours, including walking and biking excursions, scavenger hunts, kids’ hands-on activities, and campfire programs.



The Bournedale Trail is an easy and short, 1.4-mile jaunt along the Canal. The trail runs from the Herring Run Recreation Area to Bourne Scenic Park and includes a 0.8-mile interpretative loop pointing out the history and features of the canal. It’s a great walk for families, down a wooded path with water views as you return to the trailhead.

For a bird’s-eye view of the east entrance to the canal and Cape Cod Bay, hike to the top of Sagamore Hill. The 0.7-mile walk begins at the Scusset Beach State Reservation, a former Native American meeting ground and World War II fortification.

A fisherman pedals the bike path along the Cape Cod Canal past the Sagamore Bridge.
A fisherman pedals the bike path along the Cape Cod Canal past the Sagamore Bridge. DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF/Globe Staff


The former maintenance roads that line the canal on both sides are now reserved for walking, jogging, and biking. You can access the trail from several recreational areas, but on a fair weather day, biking the length, about seven miles each way, makes a fun outing. We like to start at the Buzzards Bay Recreational Area. Rent bikes from Sailworld Cape Cod (139 Main St., 508-759-6559, www.sailworld.com, $13 hour, $25 three hours, $30 24 hours), located at the start of the trail in Buzzards Bay. Consider packing a picnic lunch or snack, and your bathing suits. There’s no swimming in the canal — currents are too strong — but the trail ends close to Scusset Beach State Park, a great place for a dip. But before you hit the trail, check out the famous Cape Cod Canal Railroad Bridge. The vertical lift bridge, allowing trains to travel from Cape Cod to the mainland, has a 544-foot span weighing some 2,050 tons. The complicated procedure of signals and radio communications between the train operators and marine traffic controllers, patrol boat dispatches, the interlocking of the bridge through a system of levers, and positioning the rails, can be done in 2½ minutes. If you’re lucky, a train will be passing and you’ll get to witness the event.


Pedal past the Bourne Bridge, Bourne Scenic Park, and Herring Run Recreation Area (both parks have picnic areas and are great places to sit and watch the parade of boats going by.) On the final leg of the bike ride, you’ll pass the Sagamore Bridge and the Sagamore Hill hiking trail, before ending at Scusset Beach.

The aerial view is from the Buzzards Bay side of the canal, the railroad bridge in the foreground and the Bourne Bridge behind it as the canal wends its way to Cape Cod Bay in the far distance.
The aerial view is from the Buzzards Bay side of the canal, the railroad bridge in the foreground and the Bourne Bridge behind it as the canal wends its way to Cape Cod Bay in the far distance. DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF


One of the best ways to experience the Cape Cod Canal is to ply the historic waterway. Hyline Cruises (Onset Town Pier, 184 Onset Ave., 508-295-3883, www.hylinecruises.com) offers a variety of narrated tours. The three-hour tour cruises the entire length of the canal ($16 adults, $8 children ages 5-12), highlighting the history of the canal and interesting sights along the way. Hyline also offers a two-hour family tour (4 p.m. Mon-Sat, $14 adults, kids are free), a three-hour Sunday jazz cruise ($19/$9.50) and a popular Friday and Saturday night, 2½-hour live music cruise ($19, 21 and older). Sights along the way include the three bridges, the Canal Traffic Control Center, Scusset Beach Fish Pier, and Sandwich Boat Basin.



The weeklong Cape Cod Canal Centennial Celebration, July 25-Aug. 3, features a host of special, maritime-themed events, games, races, tugboat parades, fireworks, historic train rides, kayak tours, a fishing tournament, reenactments, and more. (For a detailed list of events, visit www.capecodcanalcentennial.com). Hop aboard the USCGC Eagle for a tour of the Coast Guard’s 295-foot sailing ship, the only active commissioned steel hulled sailing vessel in US military service. Tours will be offered July 25-28 from the docks of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. The Charles W. Morgan, an 1841 whaling ship, will also be docked at the Academy. Tours of the ship will be offered July 26 and 27. The Canal Music Festival and Seafest, with an old-fashioned clambake and craft fair, and an evening Parade of Lights through the canal will be held July 26. Tall ship tours will be held July 28-31.

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com.