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The shortcut through Cape Cod

Here’s a sight familiar to East Coast cruisers: the vertical lift bridge spanning the Cape Cod Canal in Bourne, Mass. It’s an unusual shot of the railroad bridge in its half-raised position. Unlike most opening bridges, which only open for boat traffic, this span stays in a raised position in deference to the 20,000 vessels that pass beneath it each year.

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The Cape Cod Canal Railroad Bridge was a latecomer to the waterway, which was completed in 1916. Opened in December 1935 after two years of construction, the 544-foot bridge used a pair of 1,000-ton counterweights that lifted the span 135 feet above the canal. The world’s longest lift span bridge when it opened, it remains the second-biggest in the United States. It’s only one of the engineering feats that make up the Cape Cod Canal, which connects Cape Cod Bay and Buzzards Bay and the busy coastal waters of Massachusetts.

The 7-mile waterway saves commercial shipping and boaters 135 miles over the route around the Cape. After several failed attempts in the 19th century, construction got under way in earnest in 1909 under the auspices of the privately held Cape Cod & New York Canal Co. It was a daunting enterprise; dredges encountered rocks and boulders, the canal produced swift currents, and work halted altogether during winter. The canal didn’t produce the toll revenues that were expected, and the struggling enterprise was taken over by presidential decree after a German submarine attack in 1918 off Orleans, Mass., convinced the Army Corps of Engineers of its importance. (The government bought it outright a decade later.)

A convenience for boaters today, it was vital to U.S. shipping in World War II, allowing freighters to avoid the U-boat-infested waters off the Cape. The canal, protected by gun emplacements at each end, was blocked by a wreck in July 1942, forcing traffic back to the sea. Within a week, a U.S. ship was torpedoed off Cape Cod and sunk, with the loss of 10 lives. The canal was reopened within the month.

September 2013 issue


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Just yesterday: The life of a lifesaver

The U.S. Life-Saving Service grew from roots planted along the shores of Cape Cod in the 18th century, with men assembling at times of need to pluck mariners from the sea along that long and sometimes treacherous Massachusetts coast.