Business and Labor

August Belmont Makes A Pilgrim’s Dream Come True

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.’

August Belmont (r) with Paul Cravath.

August Belmont (r) with Paul Cravath.

The task: finishing 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 — in 1803, 1818, 1824–1830 and 1860.

August Belmont

Dredging the Cape Cod Canal

Dredging the Cape Cod Canal

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, an astute banker and avid sportsman, built the Belmont Park racetrack in New York. He also raised thoroughbred racehorses, including the famous Man o’ War. His wife Eleanor originally named the horse My Man o’ War because the U.S. Army stationed him overseas. He enlisted at the age of 65 to help with the war effort during 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.

The Cape Cod Canal opened on July 29, 1914, and Cape Codders celebrated its centennial in 2014.

If you enjoyed this story about the Cape Cod Canal, you may want to read about the Middlesex Canal here. This story was updated in 2022.


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