Massachusetts

The Bridges of Barnstable County | An Ode to the Cape Cod Bridges

Three bridges not only connect Cape Cod to the mainland, but also link visitors and residents with treasured summer memories. Here’s why we love the Bourne, Sagamore, and Railroad Bridges.

By Kate Whouley

Jun 21 2021

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Cape-bound traffic snakes its way over the Sagamore Bridge in July 1972. Today, Cape Cod, which has a year-round population of about 215,000, hosts an estimated 7 million residents and tourists over the course of the summer season.

Photo Credit : William Ryerson/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Cape-bound traffic snakes its way over the Sagamore Bridge in July 1972. Today, Cape Cod, which has a year-round population of about 215,000, hosts an estimated 7 million residents and tourists over the course of the summer season.
Photo Credit : William Ryerson/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

I see the bridge!”

The car is jam-packed with suitcases and coolers, deflated floats, and five pairs of flip-flops still dusted with last summer’s sand. The bicycle wheels are spinning on the rack behind you, but you’re facing forward now, eyes on the horizon. Because the first kid who spots the bridge gets the satisfaction of being the first kid who spots the bridge.

You remember.

“I see the bridge!” With those words, your Cape Cod vacation begins. Crossing the water, you are squirming in the back seat, trying to get a look at the marine traffic below. Around 14,000 vessels move through the Cape Cod Canal every year. You’re hoping for a tugboat—and wouldn’t it be cool to see a barge? Or maybe the Railroad Bridge is in motion, lowering its center span to welcome a train. When you were younger, you pictured an enchanted locomotive steaming straight up one tower, making a right-angle turn to cross the span, then right-angling again to go straight down on the other side.

You know better now. Or do you?

Railroad and Bourne Bridges Over Cape Cod Canal
Photo Credit : Boston Public Library

It’s true that the bridge comes down to meet the train, but it’s also true that the bridges of Barnstable County are magic. The understated elegance of the twinned Bourne and Sagamore, the arresting riveted spires of the Railroad Bridge, the working scenic waterway below. For residents and visitors alike, traversing the canal at any age marks a passage to another place. Those of us who live on Cape Cod (215,000 at last count) feel our shoulders drop, our breath deepening, a sense of rightness to the world as we head toward home. For visitors, there is the tingle of anticipation mid-span, a movement from work to play, busyness to calm. (Or as calm as it gets with those kids in tow.) Some local bridge lovers never even cross; they live canal-side on the mainland, spellbound, and reveling in views.

The Graceful Sisters

Wait—what about the traffic? During peak travel times, backups are notorious, particularly on the Sagamore, which carries the bulk of the traffic to and from Boston. (Travelers from the west or south tend to favor the Bourne, the longer of the two bridges, 2,384 feet to the Sagamore’s 1,408.) Delays can diminish the allure of arrival, though not so much for residents, as we follow strict rules around coming and going to avoid getting stuck. But on the flip side, we endure the repairs and maintenance that are routine in the off-season. (For painting, the bridges are wrapped, Christo-like, in billowing cloth, lest you recognize year-rounders by their gunmetal-dotted vehicles.)

Built in the 1930s and designed by esteemed Boston architect Ralph Adams Cram, both the Bourne and Sagamore accommodate two tight lanes each way. They replaced an older set of bridges installed before the 1914 opening of the Cape Cod Canal, the brainchild of entrepreneur August Belmont Jr., who also financed and constructed the original New York City subway. And in case you’re wondering why someone would stake his fortune on a remote canal, it was all about commerce—saving time—and also keeping sailors alive. Traders and merchants had wanted to merge two tidal rivers since the 1600s. On the route around the Cape, shipwrecks were routine (between 20 and 30 annually in the late 1800s). But things didn’t work out exactly as planned on that first attempt. At 25 feet deep and just 100 feet wide, the original canal shaved 62 dangerous miles off the trip. But the high tolls, sharp turns, and tight navigation put off mariners, and the private project was a commercial failure. In 1928, the federal government purchased the canal and the Army Corps of Engineers took over, dredging and reconfiguring, straightening its course, making it deeper (32 feet) and wider (480 feet) and installing giant rocks as riprap along the banks to minimize erosion.

Hailed at the time as “the biggest Federal Public Works job ever undertaken in New England,” the Bourne and Sagamore bridges opened to traffic in June 1935.
Photo Credit : The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Someday, the Bourne and Sagamore bridges will be retired. Last year the federal government allocated funding and an agreement was forged that will enable the state to take over two new bridges once they are built. The design process will take a while, and there’s engineering, highway planning, and all the figuring out that will be required to build modern six-lane spans with bike paths and sidewalks that connect the Cape and the mainland. For the next decade or so? Let’s cherish the sisters’ sunset silhouettes.

The Stately Sentinel

Presiding over the western end of the canal, the Cape Cod Canal Railroad Bridge is a world wonder of ironwork, design, and engineering. Most often seen in its raised position, the center span is 135 feet above the high-water level and punctuated by two trussed towers capped with ironwork cones and spheric finials. If you could climb to the very top and hang on to one of those giant balls, you’d be 271 feet from the water below.

The Art Deco style of the c. 1935 bridge can be credited to McKim, Mead & White, architectural superstars of their day, whose New England projects include the Boston Public Library and the Rhode Island state capitol. Visible from the Bourne Bridge and the canal-side trails, the Railroad Bridge can be seen up close from Buzzards Bay Park. You can also cross it yourself on a scenic excursion with the Cape Cod Central Railroad or on the MBTA’s Cape Flyer service from Boston. And here’s a secret: The Railroad Bridge whistles. When canal-side residents hear that distinctive sound, they know the 544-foot center span will soon be lowered. That span weighs 2,200 tons; two 1,100-ton counterweights (one in each tower) facilitate its movement, using minimal electricity. In just two and a half minutes, the bridge is down, rails ready for the oncoming train.

Function—yes, for sure—but form. Oh, form. The bridges of Barnstable County. Three love stories spanning a single canal, a romance that never ends. 

I see the bridge.