A Look at the History of Tourism on Cape Cod

During the mid-nineteenth century, the Old Colony RailroadTourism002 provided the first train service from Boston to Cape Cod.  The line reached Sandwich in 1849 and was extended to Provincetown by 1873.  Passengers could travel the 120 miles from Boston to Provincetown in a little more than five hours.


Previously, a trip to Barnstable from Boston would have taken seven hours by packet boat or two full days by stagecoach.  The introduction of the railroad provided travelers with the first reliable transportation that was both fast and affordable.

In the post-Civil War years, unprecedented industrial economic prosperity created an urban middle class with discretionary income and leisure time.

In the early 1870s, entrepreneurs started Cape Cod’s first planned Tourism003resort areas.  By 1888, Cape Cod had 118 hotels serving 3525 guests, while Nantucket had 2340 vacationers staying in 25 hotels and Martha’s Vineyard had 28 hotels serving about 2000 guests.  Many of these visitors eventually began to rent or purchase summer residences, including President Grover Cleveland who purchased a summer estate in Buzzards Bay in 1890, which included 110 acres of land, a mile of beach, and its own railroad stop.


During the 1920s and 1930s, the automobile made it possible for visitors to enjoy the entire region of Cape Cod rather than singular properties or resorts.  The first car to travel on Cape Cod roads appeared in 1901, and by 1936 the federal Works Progress Administration reported that 55,000 cars were crossing into Cape Cod on a peak summer Sunday.

IMG_0587The Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce was established in 1921 to promote the region of Cape Cod.  They successfully advocated for prohibiting billboards, widening the Cape Cod Canal, and implementing mosquito control measures.  The Chamber also hired a Madison Avenue company in 1934 to launch an aggressive marketing campaign targeting tourists.IMG_0585

By the 1950s, tourism had become Cape Cod’s major industry, earning $70 million while agriculture, fishing, and manufacturing combined earned only $8 million.  Population grew by 50 percent between 1950 and 1960, from 46,805 to 70,286.

During this time, concerns about overdevelopment led to the establishment of the Cape Cod National Seashore (1961), the Association for the Preservation of Cape Cod (1968), and the designation of several historic districts.


Today, summer vacationers increase the population of Cape Cod from about 200,000 to more than 500,000.


In 2014, more than 4 million people visited the Cape Cod National Seashore.  Almost 100,000 people traveled through the Barnstable Municipal Airport.  And Barnstable County generated more than $28 million from Room Tax Receipts.



For more information, see:

Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce Collection. W.B. Nickerson Cape Cod History Archives, Cape Cod Community College.

O’Connell, James C. Becoming Cape Cod: Creating a Seaside Resort. Hanover: University Press of New England, 2003.

“Tourism Statistics.” Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. May 2015. http://www.ecapechamber.com/cape-cod-chamber-tourism-statistics.asp