The Cape Cod Canal
Reid, William James
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The Pilgrims used the natural passage at the shoulders of Cape Cod to avoid the dangerous shoals off the outer reaches of the Cape. The idea of a canal through this valley intrigued all. The General Court authorized a survey in 1698, and we have reports of surveys made in 1775, 1791, 1818, 1825, and 1862 as well as later ones. Numerous companies wanted to build a canal; two even started (1880, 1883); but none could get sufficient financial backing to carry it through to completion. In 1899, Dewitt C. Flanagan secured a charter for the Boston, Cape Cod and New York Canal Company, and, in 1906, persuaded August Belmont to organize a syndicate to finance the $12,000,000 project. Belmont became interested in a canal because it would (1) provide a safer passage, (2) shorten the coastwise distance, (3) be a memorial to his maternal ancestors, the Perrys, (4) be of value to the nation in time of war, and (5) return a reasonable profit. Belmont had just completed the first highly successful New York subway. His engineer, William Barclay Parsons, began work on the sea-level canal in June, 1909. Inadequate equipment and numerous and enormous boulders delayed construction and added to the cost. The canal opened on July 29, 1914. Traffic did not measure up to expectations. A strong current, a narrow channel, and two disastrous wrecks discouraged mariners. Because of the German U-boat threat, the Government took over the operation of the canal in July, 1918. The Railroad Administration returned it to its unwilling owners on March 1, 1920. Traffic was sufficient to meet operating expenses but not sufficient to pay interest on the bonded debt. The United States Government was interested in the Cape Cod Canal as part of the intracoastal waterways system. Preliminary negotiations for its purchase (1916) broke down. Under condemnation proceedings (1919), a jury returned a verdict of $16,000,000 for the company, but this was overturned on the appeal. The company signed a contract with the Government for the sale of the canal at a price of $11,500,000 (1921). The company had to make further concessions, however, and carry on some strenuous lobbying before Congress appropriated the necessary funds. The Belmont family suffered a minimum cash loss of $500,000 and, giving due consideration to interest and other factors, may have lost as much as $5,000,000. The United States Army Corps of Engineers took over the canal (March 31, 1928) as a toll-free waterway. They enlarged and deepened it during the depression. During World War II, tremendous tonnage passed through the canal to avoid the German submarine menace. Its value to national defense in those trying days was incalculable. The canal is seventeen miles long, of which eight miles is the land cut. With a width of four hundred and eighty feet and a depth of thirty-two feet, it is the widest artificial sea-level canal in the world. Its total cost to the Government was $42,000,000 (1950). The chief sources of information on the Cape Cod Canal are the files of the Army Engineers in the Records Holding Section at the Boston Army Base and the files in their Buzzards Bay office, Mr. Belmont's papers, and Congressional and state documents.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--Boston University
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