Chapter 31

Chapter XXXI

The Cape Cod Canal A Quarter-Century Ago

As one rumbles over the wide salt marshes on the Cape Cod branch of the Old Colony Railway, a mile this side of the village of Sandwich, he sees on the north, eating into the marsh, a huge machine, of which two twin smoke-stacks and a network of upright timbers are the salient features. A channel behind it leads straight out into Barnstable Bay, and one jumps to the right conclusion that the mammoth is the dredge of the Cape Cod Ship Canal, and that the channel behind is the famous ditch itself. Having taken great interest in the canal enterprise, being too a little curious as to the status of the present company, the writer stopped at Sandwich, where he had been told the headquarters of the company were situated, with the hope of learning something of the history, and condition and prospects of success of the enterprise.

The history of the project, it is curious to note, goes back to the days of the Pilgrim Fathers, for they early made use of Sandwich Harbor Inlet and Monument River and the "carry" between in their voyages along shore, thus saving the dangerous voyage around the



The Cape Cod Canal A Quarter-Century Ago

cape; and when Isaac de Rasiers, of New Amsterdam, Governor Minuit’s Secretary, went on his famous embassy to Governor Bradford at Plymouth, he made use of this same "cut-off" across Cape Cod. By 1676 the colonists bad begun to talk of cutting a canal across Sandwich Neck, as is proven by an entry in the diary of Samuel Sewall, under date of October 26, 1676.

Twenty-one years later, in 1697, the General Court of Massachusetts appointed a committee to inquire into the practicability of opening a canal across the neck, and at the outbreak of the Revolution the project came near being put in execution as a military measure, as appears by the following extract from a letter written by General Washington to the Hon. James Bowdoin, of Boston, dated at New York, June 10, 1776:

"I am hopeful that you have applied to General Wood, and have received all the assistance Mr. Machin could give, in determining upon the practicability of cutting a canal between Barnstable and Buzzard’s Bay ere this, as the great demand we have for engineers in this department (Canada, etc.), has obliged me to order Mr. Machin hither to assist in that branch of business."

In 1825 the General Government had the isthmus surveyed, with the view of cutting a canal, but, although the report of the engineers was favorable, no action



 The Cape Cod Canal A Quarter-Century Ago

was taken. In 1860 Massachusetts again took the matter in hand, but the breaking out of the war caused the project to be relinquished. Since then so many surveys have been made, without resulting in action, that the project has almost fallen into disrepute, and in fact the only company before the present one that ever began operations failed after a few months, not without suspicion of fraudulent practices.

The present Cape Cod Ship Canal Company was incorporated by special charter under act of the Legislature of Massachusetts, passed June 26, 1883, and amended by acts passed in 1884 and 1887, allowing until June 26, 1891, for completing the work. The company is governed by a Board of Directors, of which the Hon. William A. Clark, of Lynn, is President, and Samuel Fessenden, of Sandwich, is Treasurer. The remaining directors are Edwin Reed, of Boston, William A. French, of Boston, Sidney Dillon, Charles C. Dodge, and Thomas Rutter, of New York. By the terms of its charter the company may locate, construct, maintain, and operate a ship canal, beginning at some convenient point in Buzzard’s Bay and running through the town of Sandwich to some convenient point in Barnstable Bay; and may also lay out its canal, not exceeding 1,000 feet in width, "on condition that it shall file the location thereof within four months from the passage of this act with the County Commissioners of Barnstable County defining the course, distances, and



The Cape Cod Canal A Quarter-Century Ago

boundaries thereof," and on condition also "that said canal shall be commenced within four months, and be completed within four years from the passage of this act, and if at least $25,000 be not expended in the actual construction thereof within four months from the passage of this act, this corporation shall thereupon cease to exist." Section 16 gives the company power to establish for its sole benefit a toll upon all vessels or water craft which may use its canal at such rates as the directors may determine. Section 19 provides that the capital stock of the company shall not be less than $2,0OO,O00, and may be increased to an amount not exceeding $5,000,000, and that the company may not begin to construct said canal or take any land or property therefore until it shall have deposited $2OO,0O0 with the Treasurer of the commonwealth as security for the performance of its obligations. By Section 20 it was authorized by a vote of the majority of its stockholders to issue coupon or registered bonds to provide means for funding its floating debt, or for the payment of money borrowed for any lawful purpose, and to pledge in security for the payment of such bonds a part or all of its real and personal property and franchise; such bonds might be issued to an amount not exceeding the total amount of the capital stock actually paid in at the time; and before such bonds could be issued the Board of Railroad Commissioners must issue a certificate, a copy of which



The Cape Cod Canal A Quarter-Century Ago

should be printed in each bond, that the total amount of bonds previously issued did not exceed the amount of capital stock actually subscribed and paid in. These are the chief provisions of the charter.

The contract with Frederick A. Lockwood, of Boston, made in 1883 and subsequently amended, calls for a ship canal 200 feet in width from high-water mark at Agawam Point, on Buzzard’s Bay, through the town of Sandwich to high-water mark on Barnstable Bay, near the mouth of Scusset River. "Nature has provided a route for the canal," said Mr. Thompson, the company’s engineer. "From Sandwich Harbor it follows the valley of the Scusset River some four miles to North Sandwich, where it encounters the ‘divide’ between Barnstable and Buzzard’s Bays. In getting through this into the valley of the Monument River, a tributary of Buzzard’s Bay, occurs the heaviest cutting on the line — 59 1/10 feet to the bottom of the canal. When you remember that the hills which form the backbone of the cape rise all the way from 60 to 180 feet, you will see that we have a natural valley or depression quite across the cape. There are several ponds, too, that will facilitate dredging. The character of the soil presents no impediment. Borings have been made on every section of the route, and demonstrate that the soil is composed only of loam sand, gravel, and clay. No boulders even were met with, except at Monument, and they were small. It



The Cape Cod Canal A Quarter-Century Ago

is estimated that the canal can be constructed through this material for $7,500,000, and that with the dredges we shall soon have in operation, it can be completed in eighteen months. We use the Lockwood dredge, which, from its great power, and its capacity to raise and automatically deliver at any desired distance along the banks material from the bed of the canal, goes far towards solving the problem of time and money needed to complete the great work. The one now at work cost $125,0O0, and is capable of cutting and depositing on the bank 11,000 cubic yards per day of twenty-four hours. it is now actually cutting 7,000 yards daily. Besides this, two more are in course of construction, each with a capacity three times greater than the present one. About one mile of the trunk of the canal, you will remember, has been nearly completed, leaving six miles and a half to be dredged. The contractors are Frederic A. Lockwood, of Boston, and Smith & Ripley, of New York, and the price paid is $1,000,000 per mile, payment to be made in the securities which the company is legally authorized to issue. The contractor has issued construction debentures for $3,000,000 which have been endorsed by the officers of the company, and are secured by the deposit with the Farmers’ Loan and Trust Company, of New York, as trustee, of the charter, franchises, and contracts, which cover all the securities, rights, and property of the Canal Company. These debentures have but two years to



The Cape Cod Canal A Quarter-Century Ago

run, so that the contractor must complete at least five miles of the canal by July 15, 1889, to meet these obligations. Of these securities $1,900,000 have been sold, though no effort has been made to place them on the market one million by a New York syndicate, the rest by Boston parties."

"Yours will be the largest canal ever constructed, will it not?"

"In width and depth probably the largest. The North Holland Canal is 125 feet wide at the top, 201/2 feet deep, and 31 feet wide at the bottom; the New Amsterdam 191 feet wide at the top, 87 feet at the bottom, and 23 feet deep; the Suez 190 feet wide at the top, 26 feet deep, 72 feet wide at the bottom. The Cape Cod will be 200 feet wide at the top, 75 feet wide at the bottom, and 23 feet deep."

"Will there be locks?"

"No! That was the great bugbear of the early surveyors. The entire southeastern portion of Massachusetts, as you will see by the map, juts out into the ocean, causing a break in the two adjoining arms of the tidal wave at the south shore of Nantucket, and what is called the west chop in Vineyard Sound. In consequence high water comes three hours and twenty minutes earlier in Buzzard’s Bay than in Barnstable, and low water four hours and eleven minutes sooner. So that, periodically, the water in Barnstable Bay is 5.79 feet higher than that in Buzzard’s Bay, and at



The Cape Cod Canal A Quarter-Century Ago

other times 4.66 feet lower. Early surveyors argued that locks would be necessary to stop the flow of the current which this difference of level would create; but the calculations of Mr. Clemens Herschel and other eminent engineers demonstrate that the maximum flow of the current will not exceed four miles per hour, only sufficient to keep the canal free of ice in winter, and causing no hindrance to navigation. General Foster in May, 1870, said: ‘There seems to be no question of the practicability of an open passage for a canal at Cape Cod."

"It is urged in opposition to the canal, I think, that it will be frozen up for a third of the year."

"We do not believe that it will be closed to navigation by ice for a day. Prof. Henry Mitchell determines the freezing-point of Barnstable Bay water to be 29 degrees, while that of Buzzard’s Bay is 28.5, and the resultant of the current through the canal being from Barnstable Bay, the tendency will be to carry a current of warm and salt water into Buzzard’s Bay, thus preventing the formation of ice in the bay as well as in the canal. The company’s experience last winter in excavating for the canal confirmed its belief that ice would interfere very little with the canal navigation."

"And now I should like to ask on what you base your hope of a revenue in return for this great outlay."

"It is estimated that 40,000 vessels round Cape



The Cape Cod Canal A Quarter-Century Ago

Cod annually. The Government lookout at Province-town Light counted in the day time over 21,000 vessels passing his light in the year ending June 80, 1884. As many more probably go in the night, but we will say two-thirds — that will make 35,000 in all. The tonnage of between 3,000 and 4,000 of these taken at the Boston Custom-house averaged 580 tons each. If 60 per cent. of the above number go through the canal, we should have a yearly commerce of over 12,000,000 tons. But there is other traffic that this canal must inevitably attract. The Fall River, Providence, Stonington, and Norwich lines of Sound steamers must extend their lines to Boston, using this short passage, or others will. You see by this map of the coast line from New York to Boston, that the distance from Point Judith to Boston, by way of Buzzard’s Bay and the canal, is very little more than by the present railroad route from Fall River and Providence; while over the intricate and dangerous route through Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds and around Cape Cod, there is a positive saving in distance of 76 miles, and as against the ocean route, of 140 miles. Another consideration: the opening of this canal would create practically an inland water route, so that fleets of barges laden with grain, coal, etc., could be made up at New York and towed by tugs to Boston, thus extending practically the Erie and other canals centering at New York to Boston. The actual cost of going around the cape



The Cape Cod Canal A Quarter-Century Ago

is estimated at from 25 to 40 cents per ton (of the $1.05 average freight rate by water), between New York and Boston. If one half this should be charged for using the canal, we should have a toll of not less than 10 cents per ton, or, say, $1,Q00,000 per year. Traffic from the coal trade alone, we estimate, would support the canal, and yield a fair return on the investment."

Later I visited the dredge, which I found at work in the salt marsh a mile out of town. I may describe it briefly as a huge mass of timbers and machinery sixty feet high, set upon a float, which is moved forward or sideways as the huge buckets eat away the bank. The excavating machinery comprises a series of buckets, each of the capacity of a cubic yard, fixed on an endless chain like the buckets in a grain elevator, the upper end of the frame on which the chain runs being fixed to the top of the structure, while the lower reaches the bottom of the canal. The buckets cut as they descend, and are drawn up full to the summit of the dredge, where they empty automatically into a large pocket. A huge fifteen-inch pipe of iron and steel descends from this pocket, fifty feet to the surface of the canal, and is carried on floats to a point some distance beyond the bank. Three large pipes from powerful force-pumps below empty into this pocket, and the huge jets of water from them dissolve the mud and silt as it falls from the buckets, and carry



The Cape Cod Canal A Quarter-Century Ago

it down through the fifteen-inch pipe, and to the marshes beyond.

Having heard what could be said in favor Of the canal by those interested, we journeyed further out on the Cape, and questioned on the subject a gentleman of the highest intelligence and probity, and without pecuniary or other interest in the enterprise.

"Do you know," he said, "that if Jim Fisk had lived, foreign steamers would now be sailing through the Cape Cod canal? I haven’t the least doubt of it. Fisk became interested in the enterprise some years before his death, and secured a charter from Massachusetts, but died before its conditions could be complied with, and it lapsed. Fisk said he was willing to put $1,000,000 in the scheme, and he induced Gould and other capitalists among his friends to pledge the remainder. His idea was a through line of steamers to Boston by way of the canal, and he had actually contracted for two at the time of his death, and they are now running as part of the fleet of one of the Sound lines. Other parties took up the project from time to time, but could never secure the necessary funds. The present company, judging from the character of its officers and the work done, is a bona-fide and not a speculative concern. Indeed, it is so hedged in by restrictions that it would be difficult for it to be anything else but honest. I think it will complete the canal. It is understood here that it is backed by Eng-



The Cape Cod Canal A Quarter-Century Ago

lish as well as by New York capitalists and it has spent too much money under the charter and had too hard a fight to get it last winter to yield it up, unless it finds that the canal cannot be built and operated. As to locks, General Totten and Professor Baird, who came here to investigate it, told me that the plan was feasible, but that locks would be required. I think there will be some trouble with ice in severe winters, and it is probable that larger breakwaters than the company contemplates would have to be built at the entrance of the canal. I have heard that a breakwater one mile long, to cost $4,000,000, would be needed."