On July 29, 1914 the Rose Standish started a parade of boats on Cape Cod that has continued until this day. She was the first steamer to pass through the Cape Cod Canal, built by August Belmont and his Cape Cod & New York Canal Company.
The idea of joining the Manomet River and the Scusset River had been around since at least 1623. Miles Standish observed a canal route would be useful. Since then, dozens of people suggested it, partially surveyed it and even started building. But none could complete the project.
Even George Washington gave it consideration. But through the years, no progress was made to get the idea off of paper and into the ground. Ships by the dozen foundered and sank off the treacherous outer Cape.
Cape Cod Canal
August Belmont Jr., Wall Street financier, finally took up the shovel laid down by so many before him in 1909. Building the canal entailed considerable blasting though ledge and boulders to connect the two sides of Cape Cod. Belmont never wavered, however, and his deep pockets proved a match for the canal at last. In 1914 the canal opened with a grand parade of boats, led off by the Rose Standish.
Finally, hopeful mariners thought, the perils and loss of life inherent in passing the outer Cape would be a thing of the past. But the vision would have to wait. When Belmont opened the canal, he set tolls at a hefty rate to recover the high cost of building the canal.
The tolls, it turned out, were too high for many of the shipping lines. Many of the companies valued their bottom line more than the potential loss of a few sailors. The chance to shave 62 miles off the trip between New York and Boston wasn’t enough of a draw. In addition, the canal itself was tricky to navigate, and crashes in the canal hurt its image. With so many mariners continuing to take the risk of rounding the Cape, the canal turned into a money loser.
World War I came to New England in July 1918, when a German U-boat shelled a tugboat and a string of barges off Orleans. The U.S. government took control of the canal four days later in the interest of national security. In 1928, the government bought out Belmont altogether and embarked upon a series of improvements until the canal of 1914 became the canal we see today.
You can read more about the Cape Cod Canal in The Cape Cod Canal: Breaking Through the Bared and Bended Arm by J. North Conway. The book plunges into the character of Cape Cod, from its discovery to its chowder, and of the man who managed to cut a path through it.
This story was updated in 2023.