It might have been the Big Dig of its day. In 1882, the U.S. Congress authorized a survey of Sandy Bay “with a view to the construction of a breakwater for a harbor of refuge.” The goal was to create a massive safe harbor where ships en route between Boston and Portland could duck into in bad weather. By 1886, when scows began dumping the granite rubble that would form the breakwater’s base, the plans and the budget remained works in progress. The original estimated cost of $4 million had risen to $5 million and engineers disagreed on the best method of construction.
In 1892, after some 500,000 tons of stone had been dumped to form the breakwater’s substructure, a final plan was approved for construction of the superstructure. By 1898, crews had completed construction of 600 feet of the superstructure — built of granite stones each weighing an average of six tons — only to have it partially knocked down by a severe storm.
That sent engineers back to the drawing board once again. They decided to replace the six-ton stones with a layer of 10-ton stones capped by a layer of 20-ton stones. By this time, the budget for the project had risen to roughly $7 million. Congress authorized more funds, but only after ordering a study to determine whether continuation of the project was feasible and advisable. A study board concluded yes on both points.
In 1916, 34 years after Congress gave it the go-ahead and with two-thirds of it completed, the construction of the Sandy Bay breakwater was abandoned. By that time, steam power was replacing sail power and the need for a harbor of refuge had diminished. Of the 9,100 foot long breakwater called for in the plans, 6,100 feet were completed.
The breakwater remains standing today, a popular spot among divers and perhaps a granite testament to boondoggles then and now.
This postcard, showing a derrick putting one of those 20-ton top stones in place, bears a postmark of Sept. 9, 1912.
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