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The Birth of the Bellows Falls Canal

In our last blog post, we told the story of the houses that line Canal Street in Bellows Falls.

Continuing our series of journeys into the past as we set the stage for future construction of a new Depot Street bridge and pedestrian pathway, we now turn our attention to the origin of one of the first canals built in the newly formed United States.

In 1791 the Atkinson family of London commissioned a survey with the goal of identifying the best location for a canal to bypass the 52-foot-high “Great Falls” that sits between Bellows Falls VT and Walpole NH. That survey, shown here at the left, led to both states granting a charter to John Atkinson to construct the canal. Originally referred to as the “Company for Rendering Connecticut River Navigable by Bellows Falls,” the company later became known as the Bellows Falls Canal Company. Completed in 1802, the canal took 10 years to build, cost $105,000, and consisted of nine locks, each 40 feet long by 16 feet wide.

To pay for the new canal, a "Tariff of Toll" was set. The original base rate of 15 cents was subsequently raised to 75 cents, as shown on the left in an advertising notice from 1818 showing a tariff of 75 cents ($00,75) for goods and lumber and up to $2 (2,00) "for every boat passing the canal."

In its early days, the canal was used for transport and to power at least one mill, with many more being built following the completion of the canal. It was recorded in 1828 that 103 boats weighing more than 7,200 tons passed through the locks.

The illustration on the left shows a boat from the 1830s named the “William Hall” being pulled by a team of oxen. Larger boats—in this case a "sidewheeler"—had to bypass the canal.

After the railroad development of the 1850s, the traffic of boats and rafts of lumber passing through the canal stopped. The Atkinsons sold the canal in 1866, at which point the canal was used primarily for waterpower for the six mills on the Island and “Under the Hill,” the portion south of the Square along the river.

As evident in the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from 1885 shown below, you can see Bellows Falls Canal Company written in yellow that shows the path of the first canal as it passed “Under the Hill” west of the paper mills and the Adam’s Grist Mill.

The blue line in the photograph below, taken by Preston William Taft, illustrates how the first canal flowed under the depot bridge (then a covered bridge) at the far right of the photograph and then “under the hill” to the left of the photograph. You can see a bridge crossing the blue line of the canal on the far left just to the right of the Adam's Grist Mill, today a museum run by the Bellows Falls Historical Society.

In our next blog post we 'll delve into the history of the canal that was rebuilt in 1926-1928 to make way for hydro-electric power.


You can email us at any time with questions about the Depot Street Bridge replacement project, either directly at or via the blog, and we'll respond. You can also send us information on the history of the area, which we'll be happy to share with the community through this blog,

Thanks for reading and keep an eye out for the next post!

Betsy Thurston

Executive Director of the Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance

and Rockingham Development Assistant


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