The Cape Cod Canal (which celebrated its centennial in 2014), and weighs in at 7.5 miles long, separates the mainland from Cape Cod. The canal, between 480 and 700 feet wide at various points, is the world’s widest ocean-level canal. In 1623 Captain Myles Standish, eager to facilitate trade between New Amsterdam (New York City) and Plymouth Colony, was the first to consider creating a canal, which also would eliminate the treacherous 135-nautical-mile voyage around the tip of the Cape. George Washington brought up the idea again in the late 18th century as a means to protect naval ships and commercial vessels during war, but the first serious effort at digging a canal was not attempted until 1880, by the Cape Cod Canal Company.
For a few months, the company’s crew of 500 immigrants dug with hand shovels and carted away the dirt in wheelbarrows. Then, in 1899, New York financier Augustus Belmont’s Boston, Cape Cod, and New York Canal Company took over the project with more resolve. They began digging in 1909, and the canal opened to shipping 5 years later, on July 30, 1914. (It beat the Panama Canal opening by a scant 17 days.) On hand at the opening was then Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt. But the enterprise wasn’t a financial success, because the canal was too narrow (it could handle only one-way traffic) and early drawbridges caused too many accidents.
In 1928 the federal government purchased the canal, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) built the canal we know today. The USACE has overseen the canal ever since. The canal provides a north–south shortcut for some 30,000 vessels each year, hundreds daily in summer. Water currents in the 32-foot-deep canal change direction every six hours.
The Buzzards Bay Vertical Railroad Bridge (western end of the canal at the Buzzards Bay Recreation Area) is the third longest vertical railway bridge in the world. (It stands 270 feet high and 540 feet long, but those in Chicago, Illinois, and on Long Island, New York, beat it.) The railroad bridge was completed the same year as the Sagamore and Bourne bridges. When trains approach, it takes 2 or 3 minutes for the bridge to lower and connect with the tracks on either side of it. The most reliable times (read: it’s not so reliable) to witness this event are at 9:30 and 5 (more or less), when trains haul trash off-Cape. You might see the morning lowering at 7AM too. This is a good place to start the bicycle trail on this side of the canal.
There is great bicycling, fishing, boating, and walking from the canal shores.