John Atkinson Of London Who Built The Canal

In the village of Bellows Falls, on an eminence in the rear of the new town hall, and within a stone’s throw therefrom, stands a pretty dwelling which many residents who have been here several years have never seen or known of its existence. It is partially surrounded by the stately trees which formerly gave to the hill the name of “Pine Hill,” the north end of which has now been cut away and gravel, of which it was composed, has been spread well over both Rockingham and Walpole during the last few months. It is near the north side of Immanuel Cemetery, at the end of a road, so there is no passing it.

This residence is still owned by descendants of Samuel C. Fleming. He was well known as one of the earliest passenger conductors running into Bellows Falls, and later gained prominence as a hotel proprietor. He was a descendant of John Atkinson who came from London and built the Bellows Falls Canal between 1792 and 1802. At the present time, the pictures of seven generations look down from the walls of the house, while most of the people lie buried in the old churchyard between it and Immanuel Church, that John Atkinson founded, and to the interests of which his descendants have been devoted for more than a century and a quarter.

John Atkinson came from London before the Revolutionary War. He married a daughter of Ebenezer Storer, one of the early treasurers of Harvard College, and settled in New York City, where he was a most prosperous and public-spirited man of its early days. His only weakness seems to have been too great a faith in the immediate future of his adopted country. He bought great tracts of land in Virginia, Ohio, Western New York and Vermont. Finally, he purchased the water rights at Bellows Falls and built the canal here, as well as a number of the earliest manufacturies of various kinds. At Bellows Falls he spent a portion of his summers, and when his optimism and a period of financial depression had brought him business troubles, he was able, with the help of his English relatives, to retain his canal properties here and came here to live permanently. He died in Bellows Falls on September 29, 1829, and sleeps in the cemetery near the church which was so dear to him, and which he, in common with Dr. Samuel Cutler, was so instrumental in organizing in 1798. The Bellows Falls Canal was retained in the ownership of the Atkinson family until June 16, 1866, when it was sold by them, with all the water rights and real estate here owned by them, for about $65,000, which was but a small percentage of what it had cost them, and it had always been a losing proposition.

In 1817, Col. Alexander Fleming married Emma Seton, a daughter of John Atkinson, and in 1819, Henry F. Green married another daughter, Caroline Francis. These two men were destined to become important factors in the business of Bellows Falls, as, under the firm name of Green & Fleming, they managed the canal for the Atkinsons from about the above years until their deaths, Col. Fleming being the clerk of the Canal Company 47 years. The firm erected a paper mill, which was destroyed by fire in 1846, and they had other manufacturing interests, as well as joint investments. Green Street of this village was named for Mr. Green, through whose land the street was cut. The firm built in 1829, the two prominent residences on the Terrace, one now owned by James H. Williams and the other owned and occupied by the Rockingham Hospital.

The intimate relations between these two men are shown by the fact that these two residences were erected with the firm’s money without any decision as to which would occupy either. When they were completed, they sat down and played a game of cards to decide the choice. Captain Green won the game and chose the Rockingham Hospital building. In 1826, Captain Green had built the house now known as the Fleming House, described earlier in this sketch, and his family occupied it until the completion of the two residences in 1829.

During the years that Green & Fleming were the agents and managers of the Bellows Falls Canal, their office was in a small frame building that stood on the brow of the terrace in the rear of the present clothing store of J. J. Fenton & Co. All boats passing through the canal stopped there and paid the tolls charged for passing. The bank was steep and high above the surface of the canal, making quite an effort for the boatmen to get up there. It was said that many oaths were registered on high against the records of the river-men, who swore roundly at the effort required to get up to the office.

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

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