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 built beside the Falls sat silent and rusting.
In recent years, particularly under the leadership of Mayor Bill Pascrell, Paterson began to pull itself up by its bootstraps, aided by new attention and support from the state. We can report without hesitation that it is in much better shape today than it has been at any time in the past 40 years.
About 35 years ago, a movement began among civic leaders to revive the area around the Great Falls. The movement was kicked off by the first annual Great Falls Festival, a combination craft fair and circus. The high point of the Great Falls Festival, literally and figuratively, came when the legendary tightrope artist Karl Wallenda walked across the Falls at night.
Anyone who was there that night will never forget the sight of the 70-year-old Wallenda in a billowy white shirt and black pants standing precariously over the waterfall on a one-inch-wide steel cable without a net beneath him. As a 15-foot-long balancing pole clenched in his hands jittered seismically, Wallenda squinted into huge spotlights that were focused on him and carefully placed one slippered foot in front of the other as he moved across the wire, enveloped by mist and spray from the Great Falls.
As Wallenda took his final steps on the wire and stepped off onto the western cliff of the Falls, he fell into the arms of a relieved and jubilant crowd of Patersonians. People reached out to hug him and shake his hand and then stared at their hands and arms in amazement: Wallenda was soaking wet.
Three years later, Wallenda was walking across a wire strung between two high-rise buildings in San Juan, Puerto Rico, when he was knocked over by a gust of wind and fell to his death.
Paterson’s civic leaders managed to get historic landmark status for many of the deteriorating factories of the Falls District, and a few years later began to spruce them up. But the Holy Grail of preservation—designation of the Falls as a National Park—proved elusive.
For the past 10 years, Paterson’s representatives in Congress have put forward bills every year to make the Falls a U.S. park, but none of these bills were brought to the floor for a vote—until 2007, when one of the measures, sponsored by former Mayor Pascrell (now a Congressman), finally passed the House of Representatives. Last fall, it was passed by the U.S. Senate.
On March 30, President Obama signed the bill into law and the Great Falls of the Passaic River became America’s newest National Park.
So America’s first industrial city, which for so many years teetered like the Great Wallenda on his wire, is now taking its rightful place in our national heritage. After 217 years, Paterson is still here, and now, Americans from all over the country will be coming to visit.
And the mighty Great Falls, which for an epoch has carved its spectacular crevice in the Passaic River singing a thunderous song of amazement and possibility, awaits them.