Seal of the Bellows Falls Canal Co.

The village of Bellows Falls, across the Connecticut River from Walpole, was the site of an important 18th-century engineering project, the construction of one of the first canals in the United States.

The Vermont state legislature chartered the canal in October of 1792. The purpose of the canal was to allow for navigation around the impassable channel and dangerous falls. Three brothers of the Atkinson family of London were granted exclusive rights to build the canal and erect a dam across the river. The original name of the enterprise was “Company Rendering Connecticut River Navigable by Bellows Falls.” The name was later shortened to Bellows Falls Canal Co.

The work proved difficult, and the construction of the canal required 10 years to complete. By the time the first boat passed through the canal in 1802, the Atkinson brothers had spent $105,000 to build the dam, canal and locks. The locks in the canal were required to be 40 feet long and 16 feet wide. Tolls were set at 15 cents, but were soon raised to 75 cents.

The Bellows Falls Canal was one of a series of six canals built on the river to allow for the continuous movement of freight and passengers along the waterway. The canal was very busy in its early years. It was recorded that 103 boats, weighing more than 7,200 tons, passed through the Bellows Falls locks during the year 1828.

The development of railroads and improved highways after 1850 brought an end to the river’s canal system. Boats and rafts of lumber passed through the canal as late as 1858, but the railroads were controlling most of the freight service by that time. The Atkinson family sold the canal to two Keene men in 1866, and it was used mainly for water power for local mills after that time. The dam and canal were rebuilt for hydroelectric purposes between 1926 and 1928, and the old Bellows Falls canal became a footnote in Connecticut River history.

Alan F. Rumrill is executive director of the Historical Society of Cheshire County, which has been collecting, preserving and sharing the history of the region since 1927. It’s on Main Street. To learn more about its public programs and collections, visit hsccnh.org.