Tuesday, May 4, 2021

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - How Mashnee Island Became A Village

    Off the coast of Bourne is a peninsula capped off by a fist-shaped land mass dotted with homes containing spectacular views. Along Mashnee Road it is a mile-long drive over a sandy causeway that leads you to this land mass. Surprisingly despite being connected rather apparently to the mainland this land mass at the end of the causeway is referred to as Mashnee Island. How can this be? Simple, because for the majority of its existence Mashnee was in fact an island. Here is the story of just how Mashnee Island lost its island status.

The causeway leading to Mashnee on the far left.

    Mashnee Island had been a 50-acre island populated by the Wampanoag Native Americans in Cape Cod's formative years. Richard Bourne, of whom the town is named, befriended the Natives on the island in the 17th century. They then allowed the Plymouth Colony the right to graze sheep, and protect them from a large local wolf population, on Mashnee. Farmers eventually gave up due to an infestation of disease carrying ticks during the early 18th century.

    It was home eventually to a large salt works beginning around the turn of the 19th century however a hurricane in 1835 destroyed it. In the latter half of the 19th century the island became a haven for summer parties, clambakes, and picnics by townspeople looking for an escape from the mainland. It even began to attract people from outside of New England. In 1870 a New York-based yacht club purchased the island with the intention of building a summer home there.

    The idea of a canal through Cape Cod had first been broached by Myles Standish in the 17th century. Even as early as the mid-19th century there were serious talks about a canal cutting through the Cape near Sandwich and Bourne. Back then there were even discussions of having it be built with convict labor. It took another several decades but the Cape Cod Canal would eventually become a reality.

    As the 20th century dawned the canal became a foregone conclusion. The only stumbling block was finding the financial capital to pay for such a monumental project. The massive Cape Cod Canal project was financed by August Belmont Jr. and his Boston, New York, and Cape Cod Canal Company. Belmont was a wealthy financier, heading up his late-father's August Belmont & Co. banking house. He had already financed the New York city subway and with ancestral connections to Cape Cod he felt inspired to back the creation of the Cape Cod Canal.

Dredge work being done on the Cape Cod Canal.(Historic Society of Old Yarmouth)

    With both the money and workers secured the first shovelful of dirt occurred June 22, 1909 when Belmont scooped a little dirt into a tin can using a Tiffany shovel. The waters of Buzzards Bay and Cape Cod Bay finally came together when the final shovelful of dirt was taken out July 4, 1914. Upon its debut the new canal stretched nearly eight miles in length, one hundred feet in width, and fifteen feet deep. The Rose Standish was the first ship through on July 29, 1914 with the canal officially opened to limited traffic on July 30th. There would though still be some construction going on into 1916. Belmont maintained ownership of the canal until his death in 1924. Ironically he died the day before the U.S. Senate recommended that the government purchase the canal.

    After the completion of the canal Mashnee Island saw more vessel traffic around it. In 1923 the entire island was purchased by Michael Murray of Newtonville. He created Camp Keewaydin, a sailing camp for boys ages 6-16. There were 22 buildings and the camp would be attended by 60-100 boys each summer.

    In the 1930's the Cape Cod Canal got some much-needed restructuring thanks to $26 million ($529.75 million in 2021) from President Franklin Roosevelt's 'New Deal.' Beginning in September 1933 the waterway was eventually increased in size to 540 feet wide and 32-feet deep. With this added size came an issue, that of the dredge spoils. Four million cubic yards of material was scooped from the canal and needed some place to go. Before the widening was even finished it was decided where they would end up. The dredge spoils would form a man-made dike connecting Mashnee Island and nearby Hog Island to the mainland.

A postcard shortly after the dike was finished.(Boston Public Library)

    In June 1936 work began on the dike. Part of the project including shaving away part of Hog Island. It only took roughly eight months for the dike to be finished and in February 1937 Mashnee Island was an island in name only. This also rerouted the traffic from the Cape Cod Canal to the outer side of Mashnee. At the outset of World War II in 1941 Camp Keewaydin was closed to make room for military personnel to be stationed there. Once the war ended Mashnee itself was changed.

    In 1947 Stephen Days partnered with island owner Michael Murray. Days built a series of cottages on half of the island available for summer rental. He also has a large recreation complex built complete with a small piano bar and a saltwater pool. This new concept was known as Mashnee Village. Until 1990 Mashnee was both a residential community and summer resort.

    Today Mashnee is mainly a private, tight-knit, community of around 30 families. There are only homes out there. The final public building, The Quahog Republic bar and restaurant, left Mashnee in October 2009, relocating to Falmouth. Those who inhabit the 100-plus homes don't mind though. They are blessed with spectacular panoramic views of Bourne, Wareham, and much of Buzzards Bay.

The view from Mashnee looking toward Bourne.

    Those old enough to remember the days when Mashnee was an island are few and far between now. For generations it has been seen as only a mile-long causeway from Bourne. Though now a quiet throwback to old Cape Cod neighborhoods Mashnee has a history as long and rich as the Cape itself. From the Wampanoag Tribe, to sheep grazing, from saltworks and sailing clubs, from the Cape Cod Canal to World War II and beyond, Mashnee has been through it all and yet still remains relatively off the map and off the beaten path.


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