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Almanac: Birthday Boy, New Canal for Cape Cod

Roebling – an Officer and Bridge Builder; Cape Cod Canal – Success of Sea-level Canal  

May marks the birth of Washington Augustus Roebling (1837-1926), American civil engineer, best known for his work on the Brooklyn Bridge. The eldest son of John Roebling, Washington was born on May 26, 1837 in Saxonburg, Pennsylvania, a town co-founded by his father and his uncle, Karl Roebling. Following his graduation in 1857 from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Roebling joined John A. Roebling's Sons, Co., his father’s Trenton, New Jersey wire manufacturing and bridge building business, to work as a bridge builder. From 1858 to 1860, he assisted on the Allegheny River Bridge in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

In 1861, at the beginning of the American Civil War, Roebling enlisted as a private in the New Jersey Militia. He soon resigned and re-enlisted in a New York artillery battery and rose steadily in rank, being commissioned as an officer. Under General G. K. Warren’s command, Roebling built two strategically significant suspension bridges, one at the Rappahannock River and another on the Shenandoah River at Harper’s Ferry. During the Battle of Gettysburg Roebling was one of the initial officers on Little Round Top credited in identifying Gen. Robert E. Lee's army attempting to flank Gen. Meade’s left on the second day of the battle. General Warren ordered that Little Round Top be reinforced and Roebling helped place the first cannon, which helped maintain that important position in Union control. He ended his military career in 1864 as a Colonel. 

 Washington A. Roebling
Washington A. Roebling

After the war, Roebling married General Warren’s sister, Emily Warren, and returned to the family business. From mid-1865 to 1867, Washington Roebling assisted in completing the Cincinnati and Covington Suspension Bridge over the Ohio River. When his father's company received the contract for the design and construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, John sent him to Europe on a combination fact-finding mission and honeymoon. In 1868, after the preliminary designs were completed, he became assistant engineer on the bridge, and in mid-1869, was named chief engineer, after the elder Roebling’s death, the result of an injury sustained when a ferryboat crashed into a pier he was working on and crushed his foot. This event left Washington Roebling with the full responsibility of building the largest bridge in the world at that time.

He made several important improvements on the bridge design and further developed bridge building techniques, designing the two large wooden pneumatic caissons that became the foundations for the two towers. Working in compressed air in the caissons under the river caused him to get decompression sickness (“the bends”), rendering him unable to visit the site, yet he continued to oversee the project to successful completion from a nearby apartment and from his home in New Jersey. The bridge opened on May 24, 1883 to parades, bands, politicians, gala dinners, a fireworks display, and a speech by President Chester Alan Arthur and was called the "Eighth Wonder of the World.”

Brooklyn Bridge
Brooklyn Bridge

Although Roebling would battle the after-effects from the caisson disease and its treatment for the rest of his life, he outlived Emily by over twenty years. He also outlived his nephew and namesake, Washington Augustus Roebling II, who perished on the Titanic in 1912. Washington Roebling died at his home in Trenton, New Jersey at the age of 89 on July 21, 1926, and is interred in the Cold Spring Cemetery, Nelsonville, New York.

Roebling's collection of over 16,000 rocks and minerals was donated by his son to the Smithsonian Institution and became the cornerstone of the Museum of Natural History's mineral and gem collection. Many of his manuscripts, photographs, and publications, are in the Roebling collections at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

Cape Cod Canal – Over 200 Years in Planning  

June marks the month of the beginning of construction on the Cape Cod Canal in Barnstable County, Massachusetts. Pilgrim leader Miles Standish envisioned the idea of a canal eliminating the costly and dangerous sea trip around the Massachusetts peninsula of Cape Cod as early as 1623. Standish recognized that a waterway connecting Buzzards Bay and Cape Cod Bay would facilitate trade between Plymouth Colony, Native American Indians, and the Dutch merchants sailing from New York. Although such an undertaking was far beyond the means of the small colony, the proposal by Standish gave birth to the idea of building the Canal. In 1697 the General Court of Massachusetts considered the first formal proposal to build the canal, but apparently took no action. Over the next 200 years, numerous plans for a canal across Cape Cod were envisioned but all became stalled in planning or execution.

It was not until 1906 that sufficient funds for the project could be raised, when financier August Belmont, the primary backer of New York City's first subway, became involved. Belmont chose his New York subway's chief engineer, William Barclay Parsons, to be the canal's project director. In 1905, Parsons had sided with the majority of the Panama Canal commission in recommending that "The Big Ditch" be built as a sea-level canal without locks. He and the other commissioners eventually were overruled, but with the Cape Cod Canal, Parsons proved that a 17.5-mile, sea level canal without locks could accommodate a difference in tides at each end of almost three hours and nearly five feet.

Acting on favorable results of Parsons’ engineering study, Belmont initiated construction of the Cape Cod Canal and on June 22, 1909, Belmont ceremoniously lifted the first shovelful of earth at Bournedale, promising "not to desert the task until the last shovelful has been dug." By April 1914, only one dam separated the waters of Cape Cod Bay from Buzzards Bay. To celebrate the progress, Belmont ceremoniously blended bottles of water from both bays before opening the final sluiceway. As the waters trickled through, Belmont and Parsons shook hands for the long awaited completion of the canal.

Cape Cod Canal Route – Cape Cod Bay to the right
Cape Cod Canal Route – Cape Cod Bay to the right

On July 29, 1914, the Cape Cod Canal opened as a privately operated toll waterway. The Parade of Ships included the destroyer McDougall carrying then Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Belmont had achieved his objective of opening the Cape Cod Canal before the Panama Canal, which opened on August 15, 1914, seventeen days later.

William Barclay Parsons
William Barclay Parsons

Originally 480 feet wide and 34 feet deep, the canal was enlarged in 1940, making it the widest canal in the world. Passage through the canal saves about 135 miles by not using the route around Cape Cod and avoids the dangerous shoals and unpredictable currents surrounding the Outer Cape. In the two decades prior to 1915, more than 135 ships were wrecked, 63 lives were lost and $1.6 million in cargo destroyed attempting to travel around Cape Cod.

Average high-tide waters move through the canal at four-to-five miles per hour and tides accentuated by a full moon or other conditions can increase the current to seven miles per hour or more. Parsons’ engineering calculations showed that the current created by the varying tides at the ends of the Cape Cod Canal would prevent ice from forming and eliminate the need for maintenance dredging. Three years after the Canal opened; he published a landmark paper on tidal-canal hydraulics.

Originally financed as a toll passageway for $16 million, the canal was purchased in 1928 for $11.4 million by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has operated it toll-free ever since and maintains the surrounding area for recreational use. The Cape Cod Canal was dedicated as an ASCE National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1985.