Canals of the Connecticut River

The Connecticut is the longest river in New England, and has been more generally navigated, and to a longer distance from tidewater, than any other river in the same territory. Its length from the source among the Connecticut Lakes in northern New Hampshire to the mouth, Saybrook Point on Long Island Sound, is 335 miles, measured by the railroad lines along its banks. The river’s winding course makes its entire length a somewhat greater distance. The fall in the water from the Connecticut Lakes to the Sound is 1,589 feet.

The canals of the river, built between 1791 and 1828 at six different points to overcome by means of locks the various falls and rapids along its course, represented an outlay of large amounts of capital for those days, and were an important factor in the navigation problem, especially in transportation by flat boats and steamers, as well as the large rafts of lumber loaded with merchandise of various kinds for the city markets.

It has been generally understood that the Middlesex Canal between Boston and Lowell, Massachusetts, was the first canal built for navigation purposes in the United States, which is an error. That canal was started in 1794, Col. Loammi Baldwin, the engineer, removing the first turf in its construction on September 10th of that year. The Bellows Falls Canal, chartered in 1791, was commenced in 1792, and completed in 1802. The Middlesex Canal was opened for traffic during the year 1804, two years later than the Bellows Falls one.

Bellows Falls Canal

The first of these canals to be chartered, and upon which work was commenced, was at Bellows Falls. It was in 1791 and was the first canal started on this continent to be used for navigation purposes. The charter was granted at Windsor in that year, and it is interesting to note that it was the first Vermont legislature after the admission of the state into the Union. Its corporate name was ” Company for Rendering Connecticut River Navigable by Bellows Falls.” Three brothers from London, England, John, Francis, and Hodgdon Atkinson furnished the capital for its construction. They expended $105,338.13 in building the dam and canal before a boat passed through, and, because of the natural obstructions, and great fall of the river (52 feet), it took ten years before the first boat passed through it in August of 1802. It remained in the ownership of the Atkinson family for seventy-two years, or until June 16, 1866, and was then sold by them for $65,000 to Ex-Gov. S. W. Hale and E. F. Lane of Keene, New Hampshire. In 1871, the property was acquired from them by the purchase of the stock by Hon. William A. Russell, of Lawrence, Massachusetts, who associated with him other enterprising and aggressive men, and from that time its more general utilization for water power has been an important factor in the business and growth of Bellows Falls.

Turners Falls and South Hadley Falls Canals

A charter to “The Proprietors of the Locks and Canals of the Connecticut River” was granted by the Massachusetts legislature February 23, 1792, to build canals by the falls at Turners Falls and South Hadley Falls. The names of many prominent citizens were among the incorporators, but the capital for the building of these canals was furnished largely in Holland, through the medium of the Dutch trading firms of the Connecticut Valley. Two years after the charter was granted, the company was divided and the South Hadley Canal was built by the company of the above name. The Turners Falls Canal was built by a corporation named “The Proprietors of the Upper Locks and Canals on Connecticut River,” the stockholders of the two companies being practically identical. The South Hadley Canal was 21/2 miles long, having eight locks, and the Turners Falls Canal was 3 miles long and had ten locks as finally completed. The cost of the two canals was $81,000 and the first boats passed through in the spring of 1795. In the early days of river navigation, the Turners Falls Canal was known as “Millers, ” and many misunderstandings have been caused.

The Canal At Hartland, Vermont

The canal and dam at Sumner’s Falls, midway between Hartland and North Hartland, seven miles south of White River Junction, was chartered by the Vermont legislature in 1794 under the name ” Company for Rendering Connecticut River Navigable by Water-Quechee Falls.” Perez Gallup, who owned the farm contiguous to the canal on the Vermont side of the river, was named as the sole incorporator, although the New Hampshire legislature in 1796 named Joseph Kimball with Mr. Gallup. This canal was short, there being only two locks, remains of which can still be seen. Mr. Gallup controlled the franchise until 1805 when he deeded a partial interest to several local citizens. They owned it until it passed into the hands of David H. Sumner, who built an extensive lumber mill, and sent large amounts of lumber and shingles to the down-river markets. The locks and mills were carried away for the second time in 1856, and the entire locality is deserted, nothing having been done toward rebuilding. The New England Power Association now controls the land and power rights.

The Canal At Wilder

The most northerly of the series of canals that were built was that at Olcott’s Falls, now Wilder, Vermont, two miles north of White River Junction. This canal had two sections, with locks in each, and was cut at the New Hampshire end of the dam. Each of the other canals was cut on the Vermont side of the river. This charter was granted by the Vermont legislature, October 21, 1795, but no work was done until incorporated by New Hampshire under an act approved June 12, 1807. This latter act was entitled “An Act Granting to Mills Olcott the Privilege of Locking White River Falls.” It gave Mr. Olcott and his associates “the exclusive privilege of cutting canals and locking said falls and rendering Connecticut River navigable for boats and lumber from the head of said falls at the upper bar so called to the foot of the falls at the lower bar of the same, commonly called ‘Phelps Bar,’ ” provided the same be completed within six years from the passage of the act.

Mills Olcott was a prominent resident of Hanover, New Hampshire, at that time about thirty years of age. He, in company with others, began the erection of the dam and locks in 1810 and they expended about forty thousand dollars upon the enterprise. At first, the amount of business done afforded no dividends, but later, when navigation of the river was at its height, it became a source of satisfactory revenue. After the building of the Passumpsic division of the Boston & Maine railroad, the canal fell into disuse, and, a few years later, a freshet carried the dam away. From then, for two or three decades, the location was deserted except as a picturesque resort for picnic parties, the dense woods on either side, and the beautiful falls of the river making it an attractive although lonely spot. Around 1880, the rights were purchased by investors, a new dam was built, mills were erected, and today, the village of Wilder containing about two thousand inhabitants nestles on the Vermont side of the river where fifty years ago there was not a dwelling in sight.

Canal At Windsor Locks, Connecticut

The sixth, last, and most southerly of the canals built upon the Connecticut River was that at Windsor Locks, Conn. At the foot of this canal, the tides of the Sound rise and fall, while the descent of the river overcome by the canal is about thirty feet in its length of six miles. It was built by the ” Connecticut River Company” under a charter of the state of Connecticut, secured in 1825, and completed in 1828. It was a part of a large scheme of the corporation to buy up all the canals and dams on the river; to spend large amounts in the improvement of the river bed; to erect other dams and canals, thus making navigation of the river more feasible, and freighting cheaper.


The Connecticut River Valley in southern Vermont and New Hampshire: historical sketches, Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle Co., Marble City Press, 1929.

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