Friday, June 24, 2011

Fall for America's industrial history in Paterson

Another ‘hidden in plain sight’ New Jersey notable is America’s first planned industrial community. Combine one of the state’s grittiest cities with the second largest waterfall in the eastern United States, and you’ve got a fascinating story with roots in the American Revolution. We talked about it a little in an earlier post on Garret Mountain, but the city deserves a post all its own.

Alexander Hamilton first conceived the city while accompanying General George Washington through New Jersey during the war. As legend has it, the pair stopped for lunch at the base of a magnificent waterfall, where Hamilton saw the possibilities for hydropower to run machinery. Counter to Thomas Jefferson, who saw America's future as largely agrarian, Hamilton believed that the country's best chance for economic independence was through industry. If we could manufacture our own products, from our own resources, we'd have little need for imports from our former European rulers. With others who felt likewise, he was instrumental in the creation of the Society for the Establishment of Useful Manufactures, or SUM, which then built Paterson's industry starting in 1792.

Through a clever system of raceways, the Great Falls of the nearby Passaic River provided hydropower to run mills and factory turbines. Eventually, the city became home to the Colt gunworks, the Rogers Locomotive works, and a variety of textile mills. In fact, Paterson was known for a long time as Silk City due to the strength of that industry within the city. Thomas Edison located one of his Illuminating factories there, as did the Wright-Curtiss operation that built the engine for Lindbergh’s storied aircraft, the Spirit of St. Louis.

Over time, the series of water raceways was replaced by a more efficient hydroelectric plant near the falls that continues to serve the local power grid. And as suburbanization populated the area upstream of Paterson, a good portion of the Passaic's water was shunted off for other purposes. Now on most days, the Falls, while still impressive, are but a trickle of what they were over 100 years ago. Check them out after a good rain, especially after Wayne has flooded, and you’ll get a good sense of their full might.

Paterson itself continues as a gritty, working-class city, though much of the industry has left the same as it has in many US cities. A productive artists' colony now makes its home in some of the mill buildings, and there's been some effort to preserve the history that's all around. In fact, Congress voted to fund a management plan for the area, which earlier was designated a National Historical Park. With any luck, that will bring much-needed attention - and tourist dollars - to the city. There are a lot of National Park geeks who would visit a phone booth in a remote corner of Nebraska if it were on the Parks list (I should know… I’m one of them.).

It's really pretty astounding that Paterson hasn't gotten more attention, given its location, Hamilton's involvement, and the impact of its founding on America's economic history. Perhaps the industrial aspect was what held it back as a tourist attraction: how many people make it a point to visit gritty, working-class cities? In an upwardly-mobile, striving culture like ours, how many people want to be reminded that there are people still pushing their way up the ladder? Paterson has long been home to recent immigrants -- people who don't necessarily speak the language, and have different traditions. We all know how that makes some people nervous. Most of all, though, I think people just don't know it's there.

There's a great little welcome center near the Falls, and when I visited, I was welcomed by a city resident who was a wealth of information. He spent about an hour with me, outlining history of Paterson's founding, interesting facts about Alexander Hamilton (i.e. had things gone differently, he might have been our first African American president. Yes, you read that right. His mom was Creole.), the best local restaurants, and American traditions that have their roots in the city. It’s amazing what you can find out, just by running into the right person.


  1. I have to tell you that I'm extremely happy to have found your blog. I'm a wedding photographer from Northern NJ, and I was looking for fun places to shoot engagements when I found your site. I totally agree with your mission of helping others like me discover what this state has to offer.

  2. Thanks, Gabriela! Glad you stopped by and are enjoying Hidden NJ. We're always glad to share with like minded folks!

  3. Sue - grew up in Fair Lawn and just went to the falls and the nuseum for the first time in May . Way cool we are on the same wave length !!

  4. Limabean, have you seen our posts about Fair Lawn? Check out the March post list.

  5. I live in hamilton square jersey city so it's nice to know what else I can do around jersey. Thanks for sharing. Will definitely be visiting those gorgeous falls.


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