posted August 2005

Southack map    No one knows how long it took the Nauset tribe to dig out the first incarnation of the Cape Cod Canal with quahog-shell shovels, nor just when. It wasn't very hard to dig, since it was along the valley of the Boat Meadow River, the low land dividing what is now Eastham and Orleans, and the material to be removed was just sand and peat.  This allowed the native whale-herders to safely move their pods from their sand-lance feeding grounds in Cape Cod Bay to their Limulus "meadow" in Pleasant Bay via the canal, instead of the dangerous route north of Provincetown and through the Backside's shoals.

    The Pilgrim setlers of Plymouth were impressed with its commercial possibilities. Governor Prence moved near the Canal in 1644 to start the small chain of motels that still bear his name. The canal provided a quick and pleasant way to travel by small craft from Nauset, Tonset, Weeset and even Monomoyick to the clam flats of Namskaket, the sulfurous mud spas of Rinonakannit, and the earthly amusements of the Province Lands, without crossing the traffic on the King's Highway (now Rt. 6). Continued maintenance of the canal was a civic priority from the earliest times, when unmarried men were required to annually kill 20 blackbirds and remove 5 yards of sand from  the canal. An additional advantage, from the Eastham point of view, was to keep the wild Hair-Leggers of Harwich at bay.

    Unfortunately, this was not sustainable. The major export of the area was topsoil, to the sod farms of Rhode Island and Connecticut. Without the topsoil, with yards which were all sand, more of the Cape's residents could pretend to their mainland relatives that they had beach-front property, but their wood-cut snapshots actually had the water painted in. The canal gradually filled in, as the windmills blew in sand. The wide canal mapped in 1717 was a shallow ditch by the time of Mr Jefferson's War. Pods of whales stranded in Wellfleet, unable or unwilling to take turns going single file in the canal, and this still sometimes happens. Soon, desperate rum-runners could barely keep the sand from clogging the props on their cigarette boats, even at high tide, as they raced bourbon from the Monomoy stills to such infamous taverns as Buddy Chase's Hillside, Aunt Maude's House and the Greasy Phrogg.
whales stranded
    The canal became a joke, "sold" to countless clueless tourists. Jeremiah Kew was an Irish immigrant on holiday from the Famine to Orleans in the 1840s, and the marsh looked like his home bogs, so he "bought" the canal.  It was known for generations as Jeremiah's Gutter. It would be another hundred years before the Kews came to Cape Cod again. Gullibility continued to plague him -- his next investment was in a Vermont "dairy farm," when he misapprehended the meaning of "black diamond."

ship in canal
    The Industrial Revolution brought in the next chapter.  Manufacturing was booming in the cities, but Manchester in particular had no adequate outlet for its goods. Real estate promoters, always eager to soil their own beds, saw another opportunity to sell sand, and the Eastham-Manchester ship canal was built. Manchester became known as Manchester by the Sea, a name it still holds. Eastham remained by the sea, where it always had been, and didn't change its name.

    The South Parish of Eastham had other ideas, however.  Some of its more adventurous citizens had been off-Cape, reportedly as far as Brockton. There were rumors of a wild city to the south, where people partied in March, before tourist season began, and not just after Labor Day, when they left. And so Orleans was named. Not New Orleans, but just Orleans, because there was just one on Cape Cod.

New Orleans street scene Eastham town hall
Eastham municipal center
Orleans street scene