Recalling a Local 'Cape Cod Canal'

By: Ed Maroney

The view toward Jeremiah's Gutter from Upper Boat Meadow Conservation Area in Eastham.


In an Era of Climate Concerns

ORLEANS Cape Cod can be an awfully practical place these days. Imaginations are stretched not by recalling romantic legends but by trying to make ends meet or coming up with solutions to other pressing problems.

Every so often, though, an earlier Cape will poke its head up. Such is the case with Jeremiah's Gutter, a watery marshland between Cape Cod Bay and Town Cove via Boat Meadow Creek that once prompted dreams of a ship canal through Orleans and Eastham. With flooding in low areas on the increase as micro-burst rainstorms fill up parking lots and basements and sea level rise threatens shorelines, it's easy to imagine sailing across rather than around the Cape.

“Nature dug the first Cape Cod Canal at this spot in 1717,” Arthur Wilson Tarbell wrote in “Cape Cod Ahoy,” “Town Cove on the Atlantic side and the Boat Meadow Creek on the Bay side being less than a mile apart. The weak link between gave Old Neptune a chance, in a wanton mood in April 1717, to drive the ocean clean through. Chronicles state that 'it required a great turn-out of people to close it.'”

You can visualize a watery link to Town Cove under the Route 6 rotary as you stand at the entrance to the Upper Boat Meadow Conservation Area in Eastham. Down at the town dock on the Cove, where today a pipe drains runoff from the Gutter and the former extensive cranberry bog across the highway now under “commercial cultivation” as a major shopping center, you can imagine Captain Cyprian Southack's whaleboat entering the water in 1717 on its way to the wreck of the pirate ship Whidah.

It's said that Southack sailed from Boston to Provincetown on his mission to inspect the wreck. Failing to find a horse, he settled for a whaleboat and found that he could make his way from Boat Meadow Creek through to the Cove and out to the Atlantic up to Wellfleet.

“Today's two-foot-wide creek is totally unrecognizable from the prominent geologic and historic feature it once was,” former Orleans conservation agent Sandy Macfarlane wrote in The Cape Codder. “It was used extensively by the Nauset Indians and Gosnold's 1602 map clearly indicates a waterway there.”

Dr. Graham Giese, director of the Land and Sea Interaction Program at Provincetown's Center for Coastal Studies, said Gov. William Bradford portaged supplies across the Cape to the shipwrecked Sparrowhawk on Nauset Beach in 1626, and Bradford's famous journal confirms that: “It was no season of ye year to goe withoute ye Cape [that is, along the Outer Beach], but understanding wher ye ship lay, he went into ye bottom of ye bay, on ye inside, and put into a crick called Naumskachett, wher it is not much above 2. mile over land to ye bay wher they were, wher he had ye Indeans ready to carry over any thing to them.”

During the last ice age, “there was a big bulge of ice sort of in where Orleans is,” Giese said. Instead of making big valleys, melt water from the glacial retreat probably flowed directly across into the glacial lake now known as Cape Cod Bay. That's why glacial deposits are so low here. During the ensuing millennia to the present, said Giese, “the sea level has risen and covered up most of those deposits. There's just a little bit left, and that's what we have today as Cape Cod.”

Back in 1704, according to Ruth Barnard's “A History of Early Orleans,” Samuel Knowles was allowed to “fence into the water (Town Cove) at the northeast end of his lot next to Jeremiah Smith's (near Jeremiah's Gutter...).” The name continued through 1812, when, according to Barnard, “some Orleans-Eastham gentlemen proceeded to plan a short cut for traffic on Massachusetts Bay... diggings started at Boat Meadow Creek near the Orleans-Eastham town line.” These were abandoned as costs mounted, but the excavations came in handy in the War of 1812. Macfarlane wrote that American ships escaping the blockade of Boston Harbor “found this passageway to the Atlantic – but only at high tide.”

Later, Bill Quinn wrote in hisOrleans/A Small Cape Cod Town with an Extraordinary History,” “the waterway sanded in and shoaled... Little evidence is left of the canal as it was closed completely in 1849 when author Henry David Thoreau crossed it when he made his trek to Provincetown. Boat Meadow Creek is still there but it stops at the Orleans Traffic Rotary...” Historical commission chairman Ron Petersen says the Gutter's story is told on an Orleans Bicentennial Commission plaque opposite Wendy's.

These days, navigation on Boat Meadow Creek is limited to kayaks. Selectman Kevin Galligan, who wrote that he enjoys the view of the creek from the bike trail heading toward Eastham over Route 6, recommended an article by Dick Hilmer about kayaking there (

“Since the 138 acres of Boat Meadow has only one navigable route,” Hilmer wrote in 2011, “a mile and half stretch of meandering creek, surrounded by upland areas, marshlands, and fronting Cape Cod Bay, it offers paddlers great opportunities to view backyard birds, shorebirds and hawks—most notably the osprey and red-tailed hawks, shorebirds like willets, terns, and great blue herons, and sparrows and red-winged blackbirds.”

Down at Town Cove, the Gutter takes on a more prosaic quality. There's a culvert that drains runoff from the rotary and the shopping center through a 36-inch corrugated metal pipe installed in the 1970s.

“The town has known for a number of years that the pipe in the culvert is deteriorating,” DPW/Natural Resources Director Tom Daley said. “We did a bulkhead evaluation... and realized the bulkhead was in horrible condition, so bad that we couldn't safely remove and replace the pipe.”

So instead the town installed a structural liner inside the pipe. “They clean out the pipe and put a 'sock' inside,” Daley said. “They blow it up so it's up against the wall of the old pipe, then cure it with steam.”

The DPW director is more concerned for the present about having safe traffic flow into and out of the rotary than wondering about whether it could see ship traffic again. While acknowledging sea level rise, Giese said the former Jeremiah's Gutter “will still have roads going across it.” That said, “we'll have to build up roads in the low places. There are many low roads all through the Cape the (state) Department of Transportation is looking at and which need to be thought about with climate change.”