Set at the crossroads between the Lower Cape and the Outer Cape, Orleans is one of the most historically significant areas in the entire state.
Though settled in 1644 by Pilgrim colonists, the town was not officially incorporated until 1797, taking its French name in recognition of France’s support of the original 13 colonies against the British.
The British figured into Orleans history again during the War of 1812, when the town was attacked by a British Navy landing party.
Orleans’ status as a military target didn’t end there. In 1918, as World War I raged in Europe, German U-boats were prowling the North Atlantic in search of nautical targets.
But one of the submarines, U-156, came closer to shore and began firing its deck guns at Orleans. The passing tugboat Perth Amboy and its barges were sunk. Other shells landed harmlessly in the marshes off Nauset Beach. There were a few injuries but no fatalities.
So, why did U-156 choose Orleans? It might have been seeking to incapacitate a transatlantic cable which was installed in 1897 in Orleans’ Town Cove and ran for 3,173 nautical miles to Brest, France. During World War I, U.S. General John J. Pershing used the system, communicating with the U.S. government from France via the cable station in Orleans.
Today, that station is the French Cable Station Museum and contains all the original cables, instruments, maps and other memorabilia from the early 20th century.
The museum is one of several important historical attractions in Orleans. Other sites include the Jonathan Young Windmill, which dates back to the early 1700s, and the Coast Guard Lifeboat CG-36500, which rescued crewmen of the sinking SS Pendelton in 1952.
Meanwhile, historical markers are scattered throughout town, including in front of Snow Library on Main Street.