August Belmont on June 22, 1909 lifted a shovelful of dirt at Bourne, Mass., and promised ‘not to desert the task until the last shovelful has been dug.’ The task was the building of the Cape Cod Canal, something New Englanders had wanted since Miles Standish first had the idea.
A canal through the narrow neck of land connecting Buzzards Bay with Massachusetts Bay became especially appealing during the American Revolution. The Americans could have used it to evade British blockades of Boston Harbor. George Washington had the land surveyed to see if it was possible. More surveys and more attempts to build the canal were made, but all failed.
Then August Belmont formed the Boston, Cape Cod and New York Canal Co. He was the son of financier August Belmont and the grandson of Matthew C. Perry, the naval commander who opened Japan to U.S. trade. As a Harvard student who competed as a sprinter, he introduced spiked track shoes to the United States.
Belmont was an astute banker and an avid sportsman. He built the Belmont Park racetrack in New York and raised thoroughbred racehorses. His most famous horse was Man o' War, originally named My Man o’ War by his wife Eleanor. She named the horse after him because he was overseas, having enlisted in the U.S. Army at the age of 65 to help with the war effort in World War I.
Construction began on the Cape Cod Canal with Belmont's ceremonial shovelful of dirt in June 1909. . Engineers encountered all kinds of problems: giant boulders that had to be blown up, which halted dredging, and winter storms, which also halted dredging.