Canal Talk

The Morgan 2014-5092

The Charles W. Morgan returning from Boston to through the Cape Cod Canal. Photograph © Virginia Sutherland

The Morgan’s bow may be pointed homeward, but the stowaway’s adventure continues!

The Morgan is docked at Mass Maritime Academy, just in time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Cape Cod Canal. Joining us at the pier this weekend is the U.S. Coast Guard Training Barque Eagle. 

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The Eagle

Before the festivities got underway, I wanted to learn the history of the waterway that separates Cape Cod from the rest of Massachusetts.

I ended up at the Cape Cod Canal Visitor Center on the eastern end of the canal in a town called Sandwich. Unfortunately I did not find the time to eat a sandwich in Sandwich, but I did buy some saltwater taffy for the long walk back to the ship. I’ll talk about to that ordeal in another post, but first here’s a history lesson.

The canal in a nutshell

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The people of Massachusetts always wanted a canal. The idea started back in the 1600s when English settlers were looking for a quicker and safer way to trade without having to sail all the way around the arm of Cape Cod.

Surveys were conducted, and while the canal proved economically viable for commerce, it turns out trying to dig one with a shovel and wheelbarrow didn’t seem like much fun.

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I’d rather spend three years in the fo’c’sle then dig a canal with a shovel and wheel barrel.

There were numerous attempts to dredge a canal, including one project from the Cape Cod Ship Canal Company that involved a 75 horsepower steam engine and a chain of 39 buckets dredging a channel 100 feet wide and 15 deep. Because of financial setbacks, illnesses, and other legal problems, they only completed one mile after 6 whole years of dredging.

The project was abandoned until one day a wealthy shipping tycoon named August Belmont hired an engineer to get it done in 1909.  For 5 years they dredged. Boulders were blown up with dynamite and the cold winters storms slowed down production, making the work miserable. On July 29, 1914 the canal was and open for business. It was 100 feet wide and a maximum of 25 feet deep.

Since the canal was privately owned, vessels had to pay a toll to pass. Mariners were less than thrilled.

 By 1914, the Charles W. Morgan was nearing the end of her 80 year whaling career. Although there is no record that the Morgan came through the canal, if she did, she would have had to pay a toll of $60.00 based on the toll charts of the time.

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The trade route from New York to Boston was shortened by 62 miles, but the swift current through the narrow passage was a nightmare to navigate and caused many accidents and closures.

In the end, the project fell short of investors’ expectations. Belmont was not the tycoon he thought he was. He never turned any profit and the project was deemed a financial failure. The canal was sold to the federal government in 1928.

The United States Army Corps of Engineers took over the canal and turned it into a public waterway. With the help of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, unemployed men were trucked in by the hundreds and the canal was widened to 480 feet, deepened to 35 feet, and three new bridges were constructed (simultaneously, like a boss). The bridgesprovide a clearance of 135 feet overhead for shipping vessels.

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It may not look the freighter will fit, but the canal bridges provide a clearance of 135 feet overhead.

Both the Cape Cod Canal and the Morgan remain relevant fixtures of our maritime history. Today the canal is still a busy hub for shipping, recreational boaters, fishing, biking, and camping. While the Morgan is no longer used to hunt whales, the ship has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors over the years. And now that the Morgan has returned to the sea on her 38th Voyage, she has a new story to tell that will hopefully live on for another 173 years.

The Morgan 2014-5159

Photograph © Virginia Sutherland

There is much more to explore here, so stay tuned.