Belfast Stuck Fast

By Jack Sheedy

Flipping again through the pages of Cape Cod history, I recount here another shipwreck story. This one occurred in 1919 along the winding Cape Cod Canal and considers what might happen if one of the canal’s highway bridges were to become closed for a day.

Back in those days the canal was narrower and shallower than it is today, and the bridges which spanned it were much smaller and closer to the water, and in fact, were drawbridges. Opening to seagoing traffic in July 1914, the waterway had by the spring of 1919 seen nearly five years of activity, including a number of groundings and wrecks during those years. The Cape Cod Canal at that time was a tricky passage along its seven-mile land cut through Sandwich and Bourne, plagued by currents, tides, and fog.

In April of that year, the 320-foot steamer Belfast of the Eastern Steamship Line was making her first passage through the canal with about 100 passengers. Unfortunately, it would not be a successful voyage. Apparently, as the ship approached the Sagamore Bridge a problem developed with her steering gear, making the vessel impossible to maneuver. With the bridge’s draw open, the Belfast missed the opening and crashed into the side of the bridge, demolishing the ship’s pilot house and about 20 feet of the deckhouse. The vessel became stuck fast amidst the girders of the bridge, with the draw in an upright position.

A few passengers in the forward staterooms were injured by the sudden collision and one gentleman suffered broken ribs, among other injuries. The remaining passengers were tousled a bit, and were eventually removed from the stricken ship and placed in awaiting tug boats, which unloaded them safely at Sandwich.

Over the next day, with the aid of acetylene torches and saws the ship was separated from the bent girders of the bridge and with the assistance of tugs was pulled away and towed to Boston for repairs. Throughout, with the ship wedged in tight, the drawbridge could not be lowered and automobile and other ground traffic had to be rerouted to the Bourne Bridge in order to cross the canal. Imagine if something like that were to happen today – it would be a traffic nightmare!

As a footnote to this story, it is of interest to mention that some five years earlier – in October 1914 – the Belfast rammed the four-masted schooner Alma N. A. Holmes in thick early morning fog off Marblehead, sinking the sailing vessel. Fortunately, the crew of the Holmes was saved.

Jack Sheedy is co-author of Cape Odd and Cape Cod Collected.   

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