July, 2009 Archives

Niagara of New Jersey

Niagara of New Jersey

The city of Paterson, New Jersey, has had its ups and downs in the past 217 years. The upward curve began in 1792, when Alexander Hamilton came upon a spectacular 77-foot-high waterfall in the middle of northern New Jersey and decided it would be the perfect place to create a water-powered factory town that could serve as the linchpin in his plan to build the economy of the United States around manufacturing and banking. Hamilton founded Paterson, which became the first industrial city in the U.S. The heart, and engine, of early Paterson was its mighty waterfall. Always known to locals simply as the Great Falls, this wonder of nature was created by a sharp bend in the Passaic River, a modest and meandering waterway that snakes its way through northern NJ and empties into Newark Bay. The bend is so sharp that it is easy to travel past the Great Falls at a close distance without even realizing it is there. Unless, of course, it has been raining recently. Then you hear it, and it sounds like a combination of thunder and an express train. This is because the Great Falls is second only to Niagara Falls as the largest waterfall in the northeastern United States. The man who created the U.S. Treasury designated Paterson as the nation’s first big infrastructure project, enlisting Pierre Charles L’Enfant—who went on to become the master designer of Washington, DC—to build a system of waterways to bring water from the Falls to factory sites. Soon some large 19th-century manufacturers, including Rogers Locomotive Works and the Colt gun factory, set up shop in red-brick buildings near the Falls. It also was in the 1800s that a huge textile industry took root in Paterson, giving it the moniker ”Silk City” as it became one of the largest producers of silk in the world. But, beginning in the 1950s, Paterson began a descent from prosperity from which it still has not completely recovered. Like many other urban centers in America, the middle class fled, taking the tax base with them and leaving behind a broken infrastructure, a dearth of jobs, and poverty. Paterson, once the proudest hub of northern New Jersey, was hit harder than most. It had the dubious distinction of being cited as one of the five poorest cities in America. The area around the Great Falls became a desolate landscape of crumbling red buildings and empty streets, its historic legacy hidden beneath layers of grime and neglect. The power plant that had been […]



Ask the guy who carved them

Ask the guy who carved them

Easter Island sits in the southeastern Pacific Ocean. Known to its natives as Rapa Nui and governed by Chile, this tiny volcanic outcropping is famous for its enigmatic moai statues, monolithic human figures carved from rock. Nobody knows who carved the huge stone figures, or why. There are 1000 of them, ranging from 6 feet to more than 30 feet in height. The biggest weighs about 270 tons. All have the same appearance: a long shaped head with an upper torso, a chin and long ears, with arms along the body or arms that rest on the stomach. Some of the statues contain eyes, made in white and red stone and coral. Some of them even sport stone hats that the natives call ”pukao.” Archaeologists believe the first humans arrived on the island between the 4th and 7th century A.D., probably from Polynesia, and almost immediately began work on platforms for the famous statues. About 300 years later, the platforms were complete and they started building the big stone figures using rock from the inner core of the Rano Rarku volcano. During the next 500 years, about two statues per year were completed and moved to their final resting place on the edge of the island. The natives apparently cut down all of the trees on the island to use the logs to move the statues. It must have taken longer to move them than to carve them, because almost 400 of the statues are still sitting in the volcanic quarry. Suddenly, around 1680, the chiseling and moving stopped. Nobody knows why. Sociologists speculate that war or disease may have caused a catastrophic collapse of the island society (they do not believe the current inhabitants of Rapa Nui are descendants of the people who built the statues). Perhaps the statue-builders ran out of chisels. Or maybe the movers unionized and demanded a higher wage for shlepping the big stone figures from the quarry. Or maybe the natives elected a new king who said ”Enough with the statues, already!” and ordered them to use the last of the trees to build a big boat so they could all leave. There is one other theory, however, and it is quite plausible. We’ll get to that later. Anyway, the spooky stone figures have stood on Easter Island—so named by a Dutch explorer who ”discovered” it on Easter Sunday in 1772—for the past 300 years without anybody bothering them. Until now. The expanding reach of international tourism finally has enveloped the most remote and […]





A fire on the moon

A fire on the moon

Forty years ago this week, three men were strapped into a metal capsule perched atop a 36-story marvel of engineering that had three million parts, enough liquid hydrogen to blow up a small city, and five titanic rocket engines, but less computing power than you can find today on your desktop PC. On July 16, 1969, the fuse was lit and the three-stage Saturn V, the most powerful machine ever built, lifted majestically off the launching pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida. The Saturn V did not exist eight years earlier, when President John F. Kennedy declared that the United States would send a man to the moon before the end of the decade. Human beings had never escaped the gravitational pull of the Earth, and even our best scientists were not certain of what it would take to get to the moon, or if it was even possible to land on its surface. The technology, manpower and expertise had to be organized and created from scratch in the most complex enterprise ever undertaken. The race to the moon was filled with breathtaking episodes of triumph and touched by tragedy. Alan Shepard’s flawless 15-minute flight in a tiny Mercury capsule, the first American in space, was followed by Gus Grissom’s adventure. As a nervous Gus sat in his bobbing capsule waiting for an aircraft carrier to pick him up after he parachuted back to Earth, he prematurely blew the hatch, sending the capsule to the bottom of the ocean. Gus was plucked out of the water by a Navy helicopter, but he and two other astronauts met a tragic end five years later when a spark in their Apollo capsule — which had been filled with pure oxygen during a test run on the launch pad — caught fire, incinerating the crew in a matter of seconds. The two-man Gemini program, which followed the solo Mercury flights, featured a series of astonishing firsts: the first space walk by an astronaut, the first rendezvous and docking by two space vehicles, the first weeklong space mission. The debut of the Lunar Module (LEM), the strange, spider-shaped craft designed for the moon landing, was not inspiring. Neil Armstrong, already a space veteran in the Gemini program, took the LEM out for its first test flight on Earth and promptly crashed in a parking lot. Apollo 8 provided an unforgettable and welcome respite to the unrelenting bad news of 1968 when it circled the moon and, on Christmas Eve, sent back the first incredible […]