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Often during the summer months, Rich and I will fill a cooler with drinks and hors d’ouevres, throw some folding chairs into the car, grab the dog and head for the Cape Cod Canal for what we like to call “Cocktails by the Canal”. It’s a great way to unwind after a busy day at the Inn. We set up camp at the edge of the canal near the Visitors Center. Once we set up our chairs and pour our first cocktails, we settle back for an hour or two of “canal watching”. Rich likes to observe, and sometimes chat with (quel surprise!), the men and women casting for stripers or hauling lobster traps up from the side of the canal. I like to scan the horizon for the next approaching yacht and dream of the day when it will be me onboard swirling my martini and eating canapés. Casey just likes to sniff whatever she can and beg for food. It’s truly a family outing.
Few of us who live and work on Cape Cod today can remember a time before the Cape Cod Canal separated us from the mainland. However, if you dig deep enough into the history of the canal, you will uncover some pretty interesting tidbits.
Apparently even before the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded, locals believed that connecting Buzzards Bay to Cape Cod Bay was a good idea. Native Americans would portage their boats across a shallow valley after coming up the Scusset River from Cape Cod Bay and drop them into the Monument River, which drained into Buzzards Bay. Even Miles Standish extolled the benefits of a canal after dragging his small boat several miles between the bays.
Unfortunately, it took more than 200 years to make the canal idea a reality. Financed by August Belmont Jr., one-time owner of racehorse champion Man o’ War, work on the canal officially began on June 19, 1909. Opening with great ceremony on July 29, 1914, the first canal was 100 feet wide, 15 feet deep and traversed by three drawbridges, one of which was a railroad bridge. Originally a toll canal, it was not the success Belmont had hoped for, in part because it was so narrow ships could only proceed one at a time, but more accurately because of the treacherous currents that were challenging even for the most experienced boat captains.
The canal was eventually sold to the U.S. government in the spring of 1928, and work began to straighten and widen the canal, and replace the drawbridges. Funded by the WPA, the project employed hundreds of people during the Depression. The Cape Cod Canal of today is roughly 17.4 miles long and 504 feet wide. To accomplish this feat, workers had to cut through nearly seven miles of land, essentially creating an island from the former peninsula of Cape Cod. The canal is bridged by the Sagamore and Bourne vehicle suspension bridges, plus a railroad bridge with a vertical tower that lowers the rail to sea level when trains need to pass.
You can learn more about the history of the canal at the Cape Cod Canal Visitors Center, where you’ll find a 46-seat theater showing continuous presentations on canal history, as well as its flora and fauna. You’ll also find interactive monitors and displays of maritime artifacts and historic photos, plus a retired 41-foot US Army Corps of Engineers patrol boat. Throughout the summer, park rangers offer guided walks, “bike hikes” and evening campfire programs. Check with the Visitors Center for scheduled events, which is located just off Tupper Road in Sandwich.
When we’re not enjoying cocktails by the canal, we take our bikes to ride the level 7-mile service roads that parallel the length of it. Great for biking, walking, jogging, and rollerblading, the service roads are maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers. Benches are scattered along the roadways every few hundred feet so that visitors can sit and watch the more than 20,000 vessels that pass through the Cape Cod Canal annually. So pack up the cocktail shaker and your favorite snack and head on over to the canal for a great afternoon or early evening respite.