John Atkinson (1742-1823), a British merchant active in colonial trade since 1768, arrived in Boston in 1770, where he partnered with an established English merchant, Richard Smith. In 1773 he married Elizabeth (Betsy) Storer, daughter of Ebenezer Storer, a respected Boston merchant and treasurer of Harvard College. During the years immediately before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, Atkinson invested heavily in land in western Virginia, Ohio, New York, and Vermont. A Loyalist, Atkinson emigrated to Halifax, Nova Scotia, with his wife and young son, John, when the British evacuated Boston in March, 1776. They moved to England in September 1776, and from 1778-1780, Atkinson fought for the British in New York with Abijad Willard’s company of Massachusetts Volunteers. Over the next decade, he and his family made several trips between New York and London until 1791, when the family's American citizenship was restored and they settled in New York City.
Atkinson, with his father-in-law, Ebenezer Storer, and brothers, Francis and Hodgson, founded 'A Company for Rendering the Connecticut River Navigable past Bellows Falls, Vermont,' which built a canal that enabled flat-bottom boats to travel the river. The canal's construction started in 1792 and was completed in 1802, by which time it had costs the partners $105,338.13. Atkinson also invested in the Green Mountain Turnpike in 1799, which ran from Clarendon to Bellows Falls and owned a saw mill in the area.
After two decades of living in New York and spending summers in Bellows Falls, Atkinson moved to Vermont permanently in 1819. Shortly before his death on August 11, 1823, he was forced to sell his canal stock and land. Many of these properties were bought by his brothers and in 1829, Atkinson’s nephews, Thomas and Francis Atkinson, gained control of the Bellows Falls Canal and much of John Atkinson’s land. In 1840, management of the canal and land was transferred to his nephew, George Atkinson. The popularity of railroads, built during the 1850s, led to reduced canal traffic and in 1866 ownership of the canal passed out the hands of the Atkinson family.