BUZZARDS BAY - For the record, trains do not go straight up in the air, across the Cape Cod Canal's railroad bridge, and then straight down the other side.
"But we do get asked that, believe it or not," said Frank Federle with a shrug. Federle is the canal manager for the US Army Corps of Engineers, which owns, operates, and maintains the canal and its three bridges, including the railroad bridge.
And believe this: The Cape Cod Canal itself, which includes not just the man-made, 8-mile waterway that essentially turned Cape Cod from a peninsula into an island when it was opened in 1914 but also a variety of attractions up and down its snaking length, attracts more than 3 million visitors a year. Not bad for a watery slash in the land over which nearly 40 million people pass annually via the Sagamore and Bourne bridges, the canal's far more recognizable spans that carry cars and trucks.
It's hard to think of the railroad bridge as a tourist attraction; it's more of a curiosity. The skeletal metallic giant, technically called a vertical lift bridge, has a 544-foot-long center span that is kept in the raised position 135 feet above water to allow vessels to pass beneath. When a train needs to cross the canal, which has happened roughly two or three times a day for the 72 years of the bridge's existence, only then is the span lowered into place.
But to look at the bridge in the up position is to wonder just how the heck a train gets over the canal. The answer: heavy-duty mechanics. In each of the bridge's two towers are four gigantic cogged wheels called sheaves, each 16 feet in diameter and weighing 34 tons. Using 40 steel cables, the sheaves raise 1,110-ton concrete-filled steel-box counterweights in each tower that lower the 2,200-ton center span to allow trains to pass. The sheaves rotate 2 1/2 times during a full movement of the span, which takes about 2 1/2 minutes.
Answering questions about the bridge is part of the job of federal workers at an attraction like the canal.
"I've been here since the early 1980s and the canal has become more of a tourist draw than ever before," Federle said. "Before, people would stop to use the restrooms or rest on their way to the Cape, but the canal really has become more of a destination."
The Herring Run Recreation Area at the midpoint of the waterway on Route 6 on the mainland side is one of the canal's most popular features. It has a sizable information booth staffed year-round, restrooms and a 135-space parking lot that gets jammed on summer days; more than 340,000 people stopped by this year. Many saltwater fishermen pepper the riprap canal walls going after striped bass or bluefish.
"Lots of people from the area, neighbors of the path, will bundle up and walk here all winter long," said William Norman, park manager of the canal, referring to the 7-mile canalside path. "And hard-core bicycle trainers and runners, they're here all winter, too."
Word of warning to those who plan to walk in both directions: The wind - and there's almost always a breeze blowing up and down the wide-open canal - may be at your back to start, pushing you along. Coming back into the wind, figure a trip perhaps twice as long, park rangers say.
Frank Smith, a retired
"I used to walk about 4 miles a day, now I cut back to about 2 1/2," said Smith, a resident of nearby Onset, a village in Wareham. "It's much busier here in summer, but if you come early, it's not so bad. And it's a really nice walk."
The canal attracts an international clientele; Smith said one cold sunny day he talked to a woman from Poland.
The canal itself is a big draw, a place to walk, fish, or just sit and watch the vessels go by, more than 13,500 a year, from the smallest recreational sailboats to mammoth barges up to 850 feet long.
But also along the canal are seasonal programs offered free of charge, including guided walks, bicycle trips, and evening programs. One of the newer facilities is the Cape Cod Canal Visitors Center in Sandwich, housed in a former Coast Guard boathouse.
"That's gotten very popular," Norman said of the center, open May through October, which offers a 45-seat theater, interactive exhibits, and real-time radar tracking of vessels in the canal. "It opened in 2001 and this year had more than 26,000 visitors."
Though the railroad bridge is not on any guided tour, many tourists hang around the base just to look up its 270-foot towers, the tops of each adorned by gigantic stainless steel balls - which themselves engender more interesting canal questions.
"People ask how many people can fit in the balls," said John Mickiewicz longtime bridge officer who raises and lowers the span and has heard virtually every bridge question there is. "For the record: Four."
How does he know? He has to go up every so often to change bulbs in the flashing red beacons atop the balls. Is it scary changing a bulb almost 300 feet straight up in the air?
"Nah," Mickiewicz said. "And the view is terrific."
Paul E. Kandarian can be reached at email@example.com.