About Cape Cod – History, Geography and General Information

‘The Cape’ – Cape Cod, located in eastern Massachusetts – is among New England’s favorite summer vacation destinations and it thrives on tourism, beautiful ocean beaches and small unique businesses and individuals. Vacationers come to lose themselves amongst endless miles of windswept seashore.

There is real New England beauty in the Cape’s dune-studded landscapes cloaked in scrub oak and pine, in its fine stands of tall sea grass, and further inshore in its cranberry bogs, its forests of birch and beech, its meadows and marshlands.

Nauset Beach

History of Cape Cod
The Cape’s recorded history starts at the very beginning, with the Plymouth pilgrims. Mariner Bartholomew Gosnold (1572-1607) sailed the New England coast in 1602, naming things as he went. He gave the name ‘Cape Cod’ to the sandy, 105km/65mi-long peninsula that juts eastward from mainland Massachusetts into the Atlantic.

When the Pilgrims first set foot in the New World in November 1620, it was at the site of Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod. They rested only long enough to draw up rules of governance (the Mayflower Compact) before setting sail westward in search of a more congenial place for their settlement, which they found at Plymouth. Later settlers stayed on the Cape, founding fishing villages along the coasts. The fishing industry drew boat builders and salt makers. Soon there were farmers working the cranberry bogs as well, and whaling ships bringing home rich cargoes of oil and whalebone.

In the mid-19th century, Henry David Thoreau made a walking tour of Cape Cod, reporting on the peninsula just before it became a popular summer vacation destination for wealthy families from Boston and Providence. In 1879, Cape Cod was connected to Europe by an undersea telephone cable, which ran from Orleans to Brest in France, a distance of 4000 miles.

Early in the next century, Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) set up a wireless telegraph station on the beach in South Wellfleet to communicate with Great Britain.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the US government financed construction of the Cape Cod Canal (1909-14), which joined Buzzards Bay and Cape Cod Bay, cutting long hours off voyages between Boston and Providence or New York. It also cut off Cape Cod from the mainland, making it, for the first time, an island.

Today there are two Cape Cods: winter and summer. The winter Cape is a quiet, provincial place. The summer Cape is the same place but with warmer weather and lots and lots of vacationers and day-trippers; at the height of summer more than 80,000 cars cross the Cape Cod Canal every day.

Cape Cod sticks out of Massachusetts like a teenage boy flexing his muscles. Locals use a somewhat confusing nomenclature for the various Cape Cod districts. Cape Cod Bay laps at the shoreline’s inner rim, Nantucket Sound is to the south, while the Atlantic pounds on the eastern shore.

The Upper Cape
The Upper Cape refers to the area around the western “shoulder.” The Cape Cod Canal cuts through here, connecting Buzzards Bay in the southwest to Cape Cod Bay in the northeast. Two bridges, the Sagamore and the Bourne, connect the Cape to mainland Massachusetts. Built in the 1930s, they are backed up for hours on weekends in the summer.

The Upper Cape has some very old towns. The oldest is Sandwich, founded in 1637. Native Americans have contested claims on the town of Mashpee as recently as the 1970s, and it is still the home of many Wampanoag Indians. Falmouth, on the southern shore, was founded by Quakers in 1661.

One of the villages in Falmouth, Woods Hole, is on a tip of land that extends into Buzzards Bay. Home to the world-famous Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, it is also one of the busiest ports on Cape Cod. With its mix of scientists, students, locals, and tourists, this is the Capes funkiest and most cosmopolitan village outside of Provincetown.

The Mid Cape
The Mid Cape is the “bicep” and includes the towns of Yarmouth, Dennis, and Barnstable. The village of Hyannis, made famous as the summer home of the Kennedy clan, is in Barnstable. This part of the Cape is the destination of many summer vacationers, who return year after year to enjoy the soft sand and warm waters of the Nantucket Sound beaches. Other features include the tourist attractions and shopping in Hyannis and the unabashed campiness of the miniature golf courses, T-shirt stands and obnoxious road signs along the (poorly zoned) section of Route 28 that runs through the Mid Cape. The Barnstable County Airport is located here, as well.

The Lower Cape
The “elbow” is called the Lower Cape and includes the towns of Harwich, Chatham, Orleans, and Brewster. Similar in feel are the “forearm” Outer Cape towns of Eastham, Wellfleet, and Truro. The Atlantic waters of the Cape Cod National Seashore, which runs the length of the eastern side of the Outer Cape, are colder and less protected than either Cape Cod Bay or Nantucket Sound, and the wild beauty of the dunes and marshes is very different from that of the calmer Mid Cape beaches. The many islands and inlets, while beautiful, make for treacherous navigation, and the Capes most scenic and photographed lighthouses are here, including the Cape Light in Truro and Chatham Light.

Although tourism is a major part of the economy of the Lower and Outer Cape, the towns here are generally quieter than those elsewhere on the Cape. The exception is Orleans, which has beaches on both the east and west shores and is the site of sport fishing in Rock Harbor. It is also where Routes 6A and 28 end as they merge into Route 6 in feared and busy rotaries. To capitalize on the traffic, there is more shopping in Orleans than elsewhere in this part of the Cape.

Provincetown (often called P-town) is on the very tip of Cape Cod, more than 60 miles on Route 6 from the Sagamore bridge. The Pilgrims landed here in 1620 before moving on to Plymouth, on the mainland, where they found fresh water and better soil. In the intervening centuries, artists and writers have flocked to P-town, inspired by the huge dunes and what has been described by painters as the unique quality of the light. It has also become a mecca for gays, who are able to be very open in a welcoming atmosphere. With all of these influences and attractions, plus whale watching, ferry boats from Boston, and scores of shops, restaurants, and galleries, its no mystery why P-town, like the entire Cape, is packed in the summer with families, couples, tourists and students from all over the world.

Map of Cape Cod

Getting to Cape Cod
The Barnstable Municipal Airport, at the rotary intersection of MA 28 and MA 132, is served by a few regional carriers who offer flights to Hyannis and Barnstable. Provincetown’s Municipal Airport, which is a short 7km (4mi) taxi ride from the town center, offers daily, 25-minute, gate-to-gate services to Boston.

A bus, running four times a day, links Provincetown with Boston, and stops in Truro, Wellfleet, Eastham, Orleans, Hyannis and West Barnstable. You can also take the ferry from major Cape destinations to and from Boston, Plymouth, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

The Sagamore (northeast) and Bourne (southwest) Bridges span the Cape Cod Canal, linking mainland Massachusetts to the Cape. Take the Bourne Bridge to get to Falmouth Woods Hole and Martha’s Vineyard. Take the Sagamore Bridge to get to the rest of the Cape. The bridges are only 7km (4mi) apart; you can get on to both from the US 6.

Cape Cod Today
Cape Cod and the Islands (Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard) are time-honored summer holiday getaways. In the summer months and early fall, they come to life with tourism and vacationers. From late October to early May, many of the Cape’s towns are quieter, more relaxed and easier to relax. Winters are wild and woolly, ideal for reflective walks and comfort foods. Those who enjoy the height of the season – along with (usually) the warmest weather, should plan their visit around the July and August peak – ideally, before Memorial Day or after Labor Day.

Here are some highlighted activities that can be found on Cape Cod. For more specific information, please browse each individual town web page to find sights, events and businesses specific to their respective areas.

The Cape’s best cycling trail, the Cape Rail Trail, follows the old Penn Central Railroad line from South Dennis to South Wellfleet. It’s a scenic 25 mile (40km) ride with a number of places where riders can rent their bikes at the beginning, end or along the way. The trail passes through some of the Cape’s typically impressive landscapes, including the Nickerson State park, salt marshes and crimson-colored cranberry bogs.

The Cape’s hundred of miles of shoreline make sea-kayaking an outdoors highlight, but paddling around Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, near Falmouth, is particularly rewarding. Sandy Neck Beach, arguably Cape Cod Bay’s best place for beach bumming, is 6mi (16km) long and backed by a rather extensive network of high dunes. A 10-mi (16km) salt marsh roundtrip begins at the gatehouse parking lot and heads into the dunes. Along the way, there are four cross trails that connect the main trail to the beach. It’s well worth the four-hour walk.

The Cape Cod Central Railroad makes a two-hour scenic train ride running between Hyannis and Sandwich. There are three trips daily except Monday. You could take either early train, get off in Sandwich, mosey into the village (about a 10-minute walk) and catch the last train back. Provincetown began attracting artists in the early 1900s shortly after the Cape Cod School of Art was founded in 1899 by Charles Hawthorne. By the 1920s artists drawn to the clear light had created a fashionable art colony. Provincetown remains a vital center on the American arts scene with more than 20 galleries representing artists of various persuasions, from avant-garde to representational, making it the perfect place for gallery hopping.

Resources and Recommended Reading
Here are some resources for finding out more information on the history, tradition and culture of Cape Cod:

  • The Cape Cod Genealogical Society, Inc. (CCGS) promotes research and education in genealogy and history. It acquires, catalogs, and preserves genealogical and historical information, emphasizing but not limited to Cape Cod.
  • Cape Cod
    Henry David Thoreau’s classic account of his meditative, beach-combing walking trips to Cape Cod in the early 1850s, reflecting on the elemental forces of the sea.
  • Cape Cod Companion: The History and Mystery of Old Cape Cod
    Authors Jim Coogan and Jack Sheedy retell over fifty tales of Cape Cod history and folklore.
  • The House on Nauset Marsh
    A classic of Cape Cod literature and a fine piece of nature writing–a lyrical, keenly observed portrait of a much loved land and its inhabitants.

Portions of the text found on this web page was derived from The Lonely Planet, publishing over 650 guidebooks in 14 different languages, as well as the World Facts US website.


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