The Story of The Original Canal Bridges

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Photo Courtesy of the US Army Corps of Engineers

Each year hundreds of thousands of people cross over the Cape Cod Canal using one of the three bridges. The Sagamore, Bourne, and Railroad bridges have been a staple of daily life for Cape Codders and visitors alike for decades. However did you know that the Sagamore and Bourne Bridges of today are not the original bridges to traverse the canal? They are in fact the second set of bridges to cross the manmade channel.

On July 24, 1914 the Cape Cod Canal was opened after construction had begun five years earlier on June 19, 1909. It would open as a privately operated toll waterway and connect Cape Cod Bay to Buzzards Bay. It shortened the distance needed to bypass the Cape immensely. However the peninsula known as Cape Cod once the canal had been completed would become a manmade island. There was a need for bridges to span across the canal’s original 100-foot width; it would be expanded to 480-feet in 1935.

In 1910 the Buzzards Bay Railroad Bridge became the first to be constructed with the first Bourne Bridge coming a year later in 1911 and the Sagamore becoming the third completed in 1913. The two vehicle bridges would consist of two eighty-foot cantilever spans. These are long projecting beams fixed at one end. Essentially the original Bourne and Sagamore Bridges were drawbridges, electronically operated which, when opened, would provide a 140-foot navigational clearance. The drawbridges would prove to be a hassle for mariners. The swift current of the canal proved dangerous for vessels trying to wait for the drawbridges to be opened.

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After officially opening April 10, 1916 the problems with the bridges and current caused fear amongst mariners leading to an underwhelming number of vessels passing through the canal in its first few years. It was deemed a failure. During World War I the canal was taken over by the Federal Railroad Administration under the orders of President Woodrow Wilson. Despite it being returned to the control of original owner August Belmont after the war it became apparent that there needed to at least be improvements made to the bridges over the canal.

In 1928 the United States Army Corps of Engineers took over the operation of the Cape Cod Canal thanks to the authority of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1927. The canal would be improved, widened and deepened. The biggest improvements would come however through the construction of three entirely new bridges. The new Bourne and Sagamore bridges would be fixed structures rather than drawbridges. They also would have an elevation of 135-feet above the mean water level; a stark increase from the forty-one feet of clearance underneath the original bridges when they were closed.

Two new bridges were built simultaneously beginning in 1933 thanks in part to the Industrial Recovery Act of that same year which was trying to help businesses fight back against the Great Depression. They would be located in close proximity to the original bridges and opened for business on June 21, 1935. The original railroad bridge would also be replaced. Construction began in December 1933 with the new bridge opening September 20, 1935. The bridge at the time was the longest vertical-lift railroad bridge in the world at 544-feet in length. It was eventually topped by the Arthur Kill Vertical Lift Bridge connecting Elizabethport, New Jersey to Staten Island, New York. Built in 1959 it is 558-feet in length.

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The three current Cape Cod Canal bridges have been helping people cross the waterway for more than eighty years. It is easy to believe that they were always there. However if one looks they can actually find remnants of the original Bourne and Sagamore Bridges. For the Bourne Bridge one can cross over the canal, get off immediately at the first exit and travel ¾ of a mile west down Rt. 28. There one will find the aptly named Old Bridge Road. Following it to the end is following the path of the original Bourne Bridge approach. On the other end of the canal, on the Cape side, if one chooses they may walk along the Canal Service Road/Bike Path, out to Light Pole #115. There one finds the only remnant of the original Sagamore Bridge; a concrete abutment wall which now is topped by an A-Frame house on Pleasant Street.

The history of the Cape Cod Canal is long and storied. There were ups and downs, trials and tribulations, and improvements galore. There were also three original bridges long since lost to the annals of time. Though the current bridges have withstood decades of the harsh New England weather due to their great design it always important to remember where things started. Plus it is a fun adventure finding the remnants of the bridges too!

By Christopher Setterlund

Comments

  1. Gregory French says:

    Nice story, except that Old Bridge Rd wasn’t the site of a bridge that crossed the canal. It was the site of a bridge that crossed the Monument River. It is depicted in the 1906 Atlas of Cape Cod

    The original Bourne Bridge, the one that was built in 1911, was actually located on Perry Avenue

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