Cape Cod Information

Race Point Lighthouse 1876
Race Point Lighthouse 1876

Cape Cod, often referred to as simply the Cape, and called Cape of Keel by early Norse explorers, is a peninsula in the easternmost portion of the state of Massachusetts, in the Northeastern United States. It is coextensive with Barnstable County. Several small islands right off Cape Cod, including Monomoy Island, Monomoscoy Island, Popponesset Island, and Seconsett Island, are also in Barnstable County, being part of municipalities with land on the Cape. The Cape’s small-town character and large beachfront attract heavy tourism during the summer months.

Cape Cod was formed as the terminal moraine of a glacier, resulting in a peninsula in the Atlantic Ocean. In 1914, the Cape Cod Canal was cut through the base or isthmus of the peninsula. It is still identified as a peninsula by geographers, who do not change landform designations based on man-made canal construction.

Unofficially, it is one of the biggest barrier islands in the world, shielding much of the Massachusetts coastline from North Atlantic storm waves. This protection helps to erode the Cape shoreline at the expense of cliffs, while protecting towns from Fairhaven to Marshfield.

Road vehicles from the mainland cross over the Cape Cod Canal via the Sagamore Bridge and the Bourne Bridge. The two bridges are parallel, with the Bourne Bridge located slightly farther southwest. In addition, the Cape Cod Canal Railroad Bridge carries railway freight as well as tourist passenger services.

The highest elevation on Cape Cod is 306 feet (93 m), at the top of Pine Hill, in the Bourne portion of the Massachusetts Military Reservation. The lowest point is sea level.

The body of water located between Cape Cod and the mainland, bordered to the north by Massachusetts Bay, is Cape Cod Bay; west of Cape Cod is Buzzards Bay. The Cape Cod Canal, completed in 1916, connects Buzzards Bay to Cape Cod Bay; it shortened the trade route between New York and Boston by 62 miles.[1] To the south of Cape Cod lie Nantucket Sound; Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, both large islands, and the mostly privately owned Elizabeth Islands.

Cape Cod incorporates all of Barnstable County, which comprises 15 towns: Bourne, Sandwich, Falmouth, and Mashpee, Barnstable, Yarmouth, Dennis, Harwich, Brewster, Chatham, Orleans, Eastham, Wellfleet, Truro, and Provincetown. Two of the county’s fifteen towns (Bourne and Sandwich) include land on the mainland side of the Cape Cod Canal. The towns of Plymouth and Wareham, in adjacent Plymouth County, are sometimes considered to be part of Cape Cod but are not located on the peninsula.

In the 17th century the designation Cape Cod applied only to the tip of the peninsula, essentially present-day Provincetown. Over the ensuing decades, the name came to mean all the land east of the Manomet and Scussett rivers – essentially the line of the 20th century Cape Cod Canal. Now, the complete towns of Bourne and Sandwich are widely considered to incorporate the full perimeter of Cape Cod, even though small parts of these towns are located on the west side of the canal. Some “Cape Codders” – residents of “The Cape” – refer to all land on the mainland side of the canal as “off-Cape.”

For most of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, Cape Cod was considered to consist of three sections:

  • The Mid-Cape includes the towns of Barnstable, Yarmouth and Dennis. The Mid-Cape area features many beautiful beaches, including warm-water beaches along Nantucket Sound, e.g. Kalmus Beach in Hyannis, which gets its name from one of the inventors of Technicolor, Herbert Kalmus. This popular windsurfing destination was bequeathed to the town of Barnstable by Dr. Kalmus on condition that it not be developed, possibly one of the first instances of open-space preservation in the US. The Mid-Cape is also the commercial and industrial center of the region. There are seven villages in Barnstable, including Barnstable Village, Centerville, Cotuit, Hyannis, Marstons Mills, Osterville, and West Barnstable, as well as several smaller hamlets that are incorporated into their larger neighbors (e.g., Craigville, Cummaquid, Hyannisport, Santuit, Wianno, and others).[3] There are three villages in Yarmouth: South Yarmouth, West Yarmouth and Yarmouthport. There are five villages in Dennis including, Dennis Village(North Dennis), East Dennis, West Dennis, South Dennis and Dennisport.[4]

[edit] “Upper” and “Lower”

The terms “Upper” and “Lower” as applied to the Cape have nothing to do with north and south. Instead, they derive from maritime convention at the time when the principal means of transportation involved watercraft, and the prevailing westerly winds meant that a boat with sails travelling south-to-north in Cape Cod Bay would have the wind at its back and be going “down”, while a craft going north-to-south would be going against the wind, and therefore “up”.[6] Similarly, on nearby Martha’s Vineyard, “Up Island” still is the western section and “Down Island” is to the east, and in Maine, “Down East” is similarly defined by the winds and currents.

Over time, the resons for the traditional nomenclature became unfamiliar and their meaning obscure. Late in the 1900s, new arrivals began calling towns from Eastham to Provincetown the “Outer Cape”, yet another geographic descriptor which is still in use, as is the “Inner Cape.”