A team of Cape Cod contractors is headed toward the home stretch on the construction of a rare inclined elevator at one of the nation’s top historic sites, the Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown, Mass. Led by Harwich, Mass-based Robert B. Our Co., the contracting team of trade partners from across the Cape and specialists from as far away as Colorado and Switzerland, now is preparing for the arrival of an inclined elevator cab.

Big enough for 18 passengers, the 3,000-pound cab was shipped from Switzerland to New York City, but has since been held up due to customs issues.

The elevator car will be part of an automated, 17.5-ton inclined elevator system that ferries visitors up an 85-ft slope to the top of High Pole Hill—and the Pilgrim Monument—from the streets of downtown Provincetown. It is similar too but different from a funicular, also rare in the United States, which requires a human operator to run it, with just 40 across the country. At 252 ft tall, the Pilgrim Monument is the largest, all-granite building in the United States.

“We had been working all summer and have everything all lined up above ground—all the foundations are in, all the stanchions are in, the platforms are up,” noted John Bologna, CEO of Orleans, Mass.-based Coastal Engineering, which oversaw the design of the inclined elevator system.

Dubbed the Bradford Access Project, the inclined elevator will create an additional entrance to the historic site where access has been long restricted by geography, with generations of visitors to downtown Provincetown staring up at the museum at the top of the hill, with no direct way up. 

The inclined elevator is slated to be up and running in the spring of 2021, roughly in tandem with the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower on New England’s shores. While the band of English religious separatists is best known for their settlement at Plymouth, their first landfall was at Provincetown at the tip of the Cape.

Four centuries later, the project team faced the significant challenge of erecting a mini railway on a hill that is effectively a large sand dune, reflective of the terrain across the windswept lower Cape.

Giant Sand Dune

“Provincetown is a giant sand dune,” said Bologna, a local history buff. “The last period of glaciation left glacial deposits, sands, at top. Sands are pretty loose.”

The project team drove stanchions 40 ft into the sand to support the railway, with no bedrock to serve as an anchor. However, by driving deep into the sand, the stanchions nevertheless provide the necessary stability,” Bologna said. “The deeper you go, the more pull capacity or bearing capacity you have,” he said.

Geo mats were draped over the hill to prevent the sand from shifting or washing away in the rain. Six staging stations were created alongside the path of the new railway to provide a horizontal work surface for the crews. Crews laid out the stanchions and the track it supports by starting work at either end and meeting in the middle.

Temporary rope ladders were hung from the side for workers to clamber up to their stations, said Kevin Trombly, project manager for Robert B. Our Co.

The angle was steep enough that it would have been impossible to stand up, let alone work, without the platforms. “We are a horizontal contractor, but this project is on the side of a sand dune on a 45-degree pitch, and it’s over a hundred feet long,” Trombly added.

Another challenge came in building the 15-foot-deep foundation for the inclined elevator, with the water table just 3 ft below the surface. That required setting up a series of well points and pumping the water out, a process that took three or four days, Trombly noted. All that had to be done before the precast box that would serve as the foundation for the inclined elevator system could be lowered into the ground.

“You had to get water out to anchor that correctly,” Trombly said.

As the project got rolling, crews laid out the stanchions and the track they support by starting work at either end. “They had a crew at the top and a crew at the bottom, and they met in the middle,” Coastal Engineering’s Bologna said.

Legal Hurdles

But even before construction could begin, the project, which will be paid for through a combination of grants and private donations, had to overcome some major legal and regulatory hurdles. A neighboring condominium project filed a lawsuit in late 2018, arguing the hill was not strong enough to support the multi-ton railway system, and that the town had not taken enough measures to ensure that it would be safe. The case was dismissed after both sides came to an agreement.

New flood plain regulations prompted a more serious revamp of the project’s design. The project team responded by elevating the platform for the inclined elevator at the top of the hill several feet above street level.

In addition to meeting flood plain regulations, the platform also had to be high enough for an elevator pit to be created below to house the mechanicals of the system. “It took a while to get through the regulatory review, the lower section of the elevator is in a flood zone,” Bologna said.

Funds for the $4.5 million project will be raised by the nonprofit Cape Cod Pilgrim Memorial Association, which owns the monument and the accompanying Provincetown Museum. It has support from a number of major local companies and institutions. Jay Cashman, whose Quincy-based construction company, Jay Cashman Inc., is providing assistance to the project, contributed $150,000. John Cashman, his great-great-uncle, owned the quarry that supplied the granite for the monument, which was completed in 1910.

The Cooperative Bank of Cape Cod provided a $4.5 million loan in conjunction with MassDevelopment, a quasi-independent state development agency that specializes in tax-free bond financing. The Massachusetts Cultural Council chipped in $200,000, with the Cape Cod Pilgrim Memorial Association now gearing up for a capital campaign to help pay off the project, which, in turn, is expected to boost the nonprofit’s bottom line.

The project team featured a number of firms based on Cape Cod, in addition to specialists from across the country and globe, according to Robert B. Our Co.'s Trombly. He called the firms the “best of the best,” noting the general contractor had the latitude to pick the team it wanted and was not simply required to always take the lowest bid. Landscape architects Hawk Design Inc., architects Brown, Lindquist, Fenuccio & Raber of Yarmouth Port, and Safe Harbor environmental consultants hailed from Sandwich, Yarmouth Port and Wellfleet, respectively.

Outdoor Engineers of Colorado and Switzerland, and Elevator Service Company of Torrington, Conn, also played key roles, in addition to a pair of Boston area firms, McMahon Transportation Engineers & Planners and Arrowstreet.

Once the inclined elevator goes into service next spring, it is expected to boost revenue with an estimated 33% to 55% increase in visitors to the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, said K. David Weidner, executive director of the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum. The museum has previously averaged between 90,000 and 100,000 visitors a year, he said. Weidner said he was impressed with the way the project team worked together. “This has been a symbiotic relationship, and they have gone through a lot of iterations to get this thing built,” he said.