Design New England

A Photo History of the Cape Cod Canal

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By Riva Bergel

To many people traversing the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges, the Cape Cod Canal is nothing more than a quick glimpse of a pretty view, a preview of the gorgeous Cape-and-Islands scenery that lies ahead. Just a century ago, however, the canal didn’t exist, and the trip around the Cape’s arching coast was a treacherous, potentially life threatening journey for any mariner who attempted it. One hundred years later, Historic New England brings to life the full story of the construction of the widest sea-level canal in the world with its latest publication, Cape Cod Canal by Timothy T. Orwig. The book is a picture-packed complement to Design New England’s “Unite and Divide,” a story on the canal’s evolution by contributing editor Bruce Irving.


Using hundreds of black-and-white images generously donated by Nina Heald Webber, Orwig vividly recounts four significant stages of construction. Throughout the book’s four chapters, the collection highlights important moments as building progresses, transporting readers back in time to early-20th-century Cape Cod.

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A view of the Cape Cod Canal near the Cape Cod Bay at Sagamore. (Nina Heald Webber Cape Cod Canal collection, Historic New England.)

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Postcard, drilling on the line of the proposed Cape Cod Canal. (Nina Heald Webber Cape Cod Canal collection, Historic New England.)
Photographs in the first chapter, developed from early glass-plate negatives, feature beautiful homes and landmarks in the towns bordering the canal chronicling what the area looked like prior to the canal’s construction.

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Steam shovels at work, Bourne, Massachusetts, 1912. (Nina Heald Webber Cape Cod Canal collection, Historic New England.)
Thousands of determined men were instrumental in building the canal. Aided by their large, steel equipment, they worked tirelessly to clear marshes and break down the thousands-pound boulders that threatened progress.

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Dredges in front of Keith Car and Manufacturing Works, Sagamore, Massachusetts, c. 1913. (Nina Heald Webber Cape Cod Canal collection, Historic New England.)
Thousands of spectators came out to celebrate the opening of the Cape Cod Canal on July 29, 1914. Led by the magnificent Rose Standish, a Boston excursion steamer, ships of all kinds paraded through the new waterway carrying thousands of people, while others partook in celebrations on land.

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Photographers at the opening of the Cape Cod Canal, Steamer Rose Standish, 1914. (Nina Heald Webber Cape Cod Canal collection, Historic New England.)
Villages such as Buzzards Bay in Bourne, Massachusetts, which were transformed by the canal’s existence, are highlighted as is the construction of the iconic Bourne and Sagamore bridges.
Nina Heald Webber, owner of this magnificent collection, is now 83 and living in Naples, Florida. She still enjoys spending her summers on the Cape.

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Workers pose for a picture underneath the railroad bridge. (Nina Heald Webber Cape Cod Canal collection, Historic New England.)
The Cape Cod Canal’s centennial celebration, July 25 through August 3, will feature numerous activities including fireworks, boat rides, and parades. For a schedule go to capecodcanalcentennial.com. Copies of Cape Cod Canal are available for $21.99 online at shop.historicnewengland.org, or by calling 617-227-3956.
Great design is always at your fingertips! Read Design New England‘s July/August issue online!

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