Tuesday, May 25, 2021

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - The Story of Route 6's 'Suicide Alley'


The Mid-Cape Highway, known as Route 6, extends 63 miles across Cape Cod from the foot of the Sagamore Bridge to Herring Cove Beach in Provincetown. It passes through every town on Cape Cod except for Falmouth, Mashpee, and Chatham. First designated in 1926 this road has been consistently improved and redeveloped over the subsequent century. It is now the main highway and busiest road on the Cape.

Throughout its lengthening and widening, eventually connecting the entirety of Cape Cod Route 6 has remained a quite normal highway. It is a double-barreled road from Sandwich to Dennis, while becoming more of a traditional surface road between Eastham and Provincetown. However there is one section of Route 6 that has become a world unto its own. This 13-mile section connects Dennis to Orleans and has been witness to an unusually high number of fatal auto accidents. So much so that this section of road has had its own unique and chilling nickname. It is known by locals as 'Suicide Alley.'

This section of Route 6, extending the highway to the Orleans Rotary, was initially completed in 1959. In 1954 the highway was widened from two to four lanes up to Hyannis, it took until 1971 for it to be widened to four lanes into Dennis. However that was where the widening stopped. The section between Dennis and Orleans remained two lanes, one in each direction, and has right up until the current day.

The Mid-Cape Highway in the 1950's.(Sturgis Library)

Initially this two-lane highway maintained the 55mph speed limit of the rest of Route 6 up to that point. To allow faster traveling vehicles an easier time 22 passing zones were also included on this part of the road, meaning it was possible for passing vehicles to be face to face with those coming in the opposite direction. Likely sensing impending doom the Massachusetts Department of Public Works discussed plans to widen Route 6 to four lanes all the way into Orleans. However environmental concerns halted these talks by 1974. The proposed widening would impact some wetlands, several ponds, and potentially town drinking water. The state did lower the speed limit from 55 to 50mph in 1974. This did little to slow the increasing rash of severe accidents.

It was not until the late 1970's that this part of the highway got its morbid nickname. First seen in a printed capacity in 1979 'Suicide Alley' was bestowed upon the 13-miles of road. This was due to the high number of fatal vehicle accidents. Between 1973-1979 alone there were 17 deaths and 174 injuries along Suicide Alley. It was easy to understand why as the two lanes had hardly any separation between them with vehicles commonly traveling far above the posted 50mph speed limit. This was a cramped section of road where on an off-season day the highway can see upwards of 55,000 vehicles. It only exacerbated in the summer when those numbers could easily double. Traffic jams heading west on summer days are frustratingly normal even to this day.

In 1979 there were renewed talks over widening Route 6. The environmental concerns were raised again though the idea of getting the towns involved (Dennis, Harwich, Brewster, and Orleans) on the same page seemed to be just as difficult. It was said at the time that a 'united front' would help get the project funded. By 1981 again talks had quieted down. Instead locals gave ideas on how to make Suicide Alley safer without widening it. Some of these included traffic lights at all on ramps and a concrete barrier along the entire stretch of road. The barrier was also nixed due to environmental concerns.

An interesting note on Suicide Alley was the fact that despite the fatalities along it being higher than the state average for highways, the number of accidents in general was lower. In the mid-1980's some state police officers referred to the Dennis to Orleans section of highway as the most dangerous road in Massachusetts.

'Suicide Alley' in Brewster c.2005

An environmental impact study was green-lighted in January 1986 with a Route 6 task force suggesting again to widen the highway to four lanes in September 1986. In addition to the environmental worries some locals theorized that a wider Suicide Alley could lead to a faster development of the areas it passed through. This time though the project actually gained steam. By the end of the 1980's 36 people had died on the road in the previous two decades. The tipping point was the horrific accident in April 1989 when Brewster mother Lois Ann Scholomiti and her 2 children died in a head-on collision with a truck.

In an attempt to appease all sides a $7 million($13.7 million in 2021) project was completed in 1991. A three-foot wide berm(artificial embankment) and three-foot tall reflectors were added for the entirety of Suicide Alley. The passing zones were also removed and the two lanes slightly widened. Despite these safety improvements the talk of making the road four-lanes remained and had its closest pass to date in 1994.

The Massachusetts Highway Department submitted three proposals for the maligned Suicide Alley. They all included some form of widening the road, though each with different end points of said widening. A 'full-build' to the Orleans Rotary was estimated to cost $45 million ($81 million in 2021). The project even had design plans drawn up by the Highway Department. In the nearly 3 decades since though the project has never moved beyond design plans and speculation. It must be said though that the two Cape Cod Rail Trail bridges over the highway in the years since have left room for the addition of more lanes.

The proposed changes to Suicide Alley in 1994(Mass. Highway Dept.)

For more than 40 years a 13-mile section of Cape Cod highway has been alternatively known as 'Suicide Alley' by locals. Is the name justified? There are drivers and police alike who say it is not. The Bourne Scenic Highway is one such road seen as more dangerous than Suicide Alley. According to a study by the Cape Cod Commission in 2004 the crash rate on Route 6 in Eastham is the highest, nearly triple any other section of the road, including Suicide Alley.

Those safety measures implemented in 1991 have reduced the accident rates on the road. However the rumblings of extending the four-lane Route 6 all the way to Orleans are always just below the surface. Anytime a terrible accident occurs, or a several-mile traffic backup occurs in the summer, those talks will again come bubbling up. Until it is officially no longer two lanes 'Suicide Alley' will maintain its name among locals, even if it has not been truly fitting in three decades.


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