Where is Cape Cod located?

Paine's Creek in Brewster is constantly changing as are many areas across Cape Cod. Photo by Jane Booth.

Is Cape Cod an island?

Cape Cod is perhaps the best known peninsula in Massachusetts (although folks from Cape Ann may disagree). You can get to the Cape by plane, bus, ferry, car and soon, train.  The fifteen towns of Cape Cod are in Barnstable County in the easternmost part of Massachusetts. Most folks driving to the Cape make their way from points south, north and west via Routes 195, 495 and 3 to the Cape Cod Canal.

Because of the man-made canal, Cape Cod is now only connected to the mainland by the Bourne and Sagamore bridges, as well as the little-used Cape Cod Canal Railroad Bridge, one of the few lift bridges that is kept up rather than down due to the minimal land traffic. All three bridges are owned and maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

The Cape Cod Canal has technically made the Cape into an artificial island. According to the US Army Corps of Engineers, construction of the Canal was initiated by wealthy financier August Belmont in 1909 and the construction continued until 1914. Belmont had also been the driving force behind building New York City’s first subway. The federal government purchased the Canal from Belmont in 1921.

Construction of the Cape Cod Canal was a long time coming, with the need for a canal having been recognized by people as far back as Myles Standish back in 1623. Standish and others had explored the idea of creating a canal as an alternative to navigating the treacherous waters surrounding the Cape. Many a ship was wrecked in the off of Cape Cod in the period prior to the construction of the Cape Cod Canal.

Before Belmont began work on the Canal, another company had briefly begun work on a canal back in 1880 when the Cape Cod Canal Company was granted a charter to construct a canal. Although the Company began the project, they never completed the work and the charter lapsed. Other short-lived attempts at construction of a canal followed, all to meet the same end.

When Belmont’s Canal first opened, it was a toll seaway, however it is now a toll-free route, open to all motorized boats. Belmont’s Canal was different from the Cape Cod Canal today in that it was smaller and had a poor reputation among mariners.

Before the government purchased the Canal from Belmont, the government had briefly assumed control of the Canal in 1918 after German U-Boats sunk several ships close to Cape Cod. The government tried to give the Canal back to Belmont’s company in 1920, but the company said that they were no longer responsible for the Canal and the Canal closed for three days.

Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge appealed to the company to reopen the Canal, and they did, but Belmont entered into an agreement soon there-after with the federal government and the Canal was officially sold in July of 1921 for $11.5 million. The government did not officially gain title of the Canal until 1928 due to various reasons including congressional appropriations of monies and legal problems with the land titles.

The government greatly improved upon Belmont’s Canal and built the three bridges, creating the Cape Cod Canal that everyone crosses to come to the Cape today. By 1975, the government had spent over $80 million on the Cape Cod Canal, something that it has been said is well worth the cost given the alternative of trying to navigate the hazardous waters of the Outer Cape.

Bill Barber of the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster, shared some information on how Cape Cod was formed. Cape Cod formed during the Pleistocene Epoch of the Quaternary Period (the period we are currently living in). The bedrock which makes up the Cape may be as old as 280 million years in some areas, but the shaping of Cape Cod happened during the last Ice Age when the Laurentide icesheet (which was 2 miles thick in some places), receded permanently around 20,000 years ago.

The icesheet had previously gone through periods of encroachment and recession, shaping the landscape and creating the area we now know as Cape Cod Bay. The moraines and outwash plains left by the icesheet became the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

During the time of Cape Cod’s formation, very different animals ruled the land. Evidence of wooly mammoths has been uncovered, but it has been a very long time since the Cape last saw creatures of such magnitude.

Even after the glacier retreated, it was quite some time before the Cape and Islands became what they are today. The Atlantic Ocean was 400 feet lower than it is today because there was so much water in the glacier. With the melting of the glacier, the areas the glacier had carved out began to fill with ocean water. Before this, it was possible to walk out to Nantucket and even George’s Bank was above water.

Around 10,000 years ago, there is hard evidence that Native Americans had come to the Cape. The Native Americans were able to have settlements in areas that are now covered by the ocean. The acidic soil of Cape Cod has made finding Native American artifacts difficult, with stone artifacts being those most likely to survive.

Even today, the Cape is still forming, with coastal erosion eating away at and reshaping beaches (and even some parking lots). Paine’s Creek in Brewster, for example, had its parking lot completely destroyed a few years ago, according to Barber. The town redid the parking lot, but the storms this past winter have caused new damage to the area.

There are also houses on the coastline that are threatened by the encroaching waters. The options for homeowners are limited to letting the homes fall into the sea, moving the home, or trying to circumvent Mother Nature (but only for those who have millions to spend).

The erosion of the Atlantic Ocean is swifter than that on the Cape Cod Bay. The parts of the Cape most threatened by erosion are areas such as the Outer Cape which is only 2 miles wide in some spots. Barber says that in 1,000 years, the landscape of the Cape and Islands will be a vastly different picture from what we have now. Until then, enjoy the beaches as they are for today.

Click here to see a map of Cape Cod and for information about getting to the Cape and getting around while you are here.

About the Author

Contributing Writer

Mati Brown holds a Journalism degree from the University of Massachusetts – Amherst. She has written for several publications, including the Berlin Reporter, EDGE publications, and the Falmouth and Mashpee Bulletins. A current resident of Brewster, she is glad to be writing about the area she grew up in.