Business and Labor

Mother Brook Canal: Still Useful After All These Years

On March 25, 1639, Massachusetts Bay Colony Gov. John Winthrop approved the first manmade canal in North America.

Fish sculpture at Mill Pond Park along the banks of Mother Brook.

Fish sculpture at Mill Pond Park along the banks of Mother Brook.

The colonists dug a 4,000-foot ditch connecting the Neponset River with the Charles River. The mills built along the canal fueled Dedham’s growth as an industrial center and provided waterpower to the town until the early 20th century.

The Town of Dedham was settled by English colonists in 1635 and incorporated a year later. The settlers wanted to name it Contentment, but the General Court overruled them and called it Dedham after the town in England from which some of them had come.

In 1637, the settlers decided to grant 60 acres to Abraham Shawe, who agreed to build a corn mill along the Charles River. (It hadn’t taken long for the colonists to get tired of grinding corn using hand mills imported by Winthrop.)

Shawe died before the mill was built, and the town’s founders realized the Charles River moved too slowly to power a mill.

But a small stream called East Brook fell 40 feet from a spot near the Dedham settlement to the Neponset River. A survey persuaded Dedham’s founders that diverting water from the Charles to the Neponset would power a mill. Every landowner was ordered to go to Watertown Mill and haul millstones back to Dedham.

The ditch to be dug would connect the East Brook (behind the present-day Brookdale Cemetery) and the Charles, diverting enough water to power a water wheel. From 1639 to 1640, the settlers dug the canal. Today it is called Mother Brook.

The town awarded Shawe’s 60 acres to John Elderkin. He built the mill in 1641 near the present-day Bussey Street. Elderkin later sold a half interest to Nathaniel Whiting, who later bought the entire property.

The mill ran for 250 years, with the Whiting family running it for 174 of those. Other mills were built to make cotton, wool, paper, wire and carpets. In 1932, the Boston Envelope Company took over the second mill to make drinking cups. The building is still in use today. Another, the Stone Mill on Milton Street, is part of the Stone Mill condominium complex.

Today the Mother Brook is maintained to control floodwater from the Charles River.


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