Paterson Great Falls National Park: More Than Scenery

Mark J. Magyar | November 8, 2011
Newly dedicated as a national park, Great Falls also celebrates the city that was the cradle of America's Industrial Revolution and its radical labor movement

great falls
Flanked by schoolchildren waving handmade signs in front of a statue of Alexander Hamilton, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Paterson Mayor Jeffery Jones yesterday signed an agreement dedicating Paterson Great Falls National Historic Park in a ceremony that officials hope will mark the beginning of a renaissance for the city where America’s Industrial Revolution began.

“Paterson and its falls played an integral part in the industrial growth of our nation and in the lives of immigrants who labored in the mills and ultimately joined unions to seek better working conditions and pay,” Salazar declared. “By establishing this park, we not only tell the story of Paterson, but we also contribute to the economic growth of the city.”

The dedication of Paterson Great Falls as the nation’s 397th national park marks the beginning of a detailed federal planning process that will take two to three years to complete. The National Park Service is already promoting the Great Falls, its 35-acre park, and Paterson’s surrounding historic district to a national tourism audience.

Carved by the glaciers that receded 13,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age, the Great Falls are 77 feet high and 260 feet wide; 2 billion gallons of water rush over the falls from the Passaic River every day. Although it is the second biggest waterfall east of the Mississippi, second only to Niagara Falls, the Great Falls of the Passaic are relatively unknown outside the Paterson area.

“I remember coming here with my grandfather,” said newly designated Paterson Great Falls National Park Superintendent Darren Boch, a Paterson native whose grandmother Rose Lamonica worked as a seamstress in a Paterson sweatshop. “I was always amazed how few people – even in New Jersey – knew about the Great Falls. But they will.”

Mayor Jones noted that Hamilton had picnicked at the Great Falls with George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette. It was the water power offered by the Great Falls that led Hamilton and his Society for Useful Manufacture to develop the tract of land that is now Paterson as America’s first planned industrial city – a center of manufacturing that would rattle with the din of textile mills, locomotive factories, machine shops and silk mills; launch the first submarine; and manufacture Samuel Colt’s famous revolver.

It was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution and of labor radicalism, the site of the first industrial strike in American history and of the famous 1913 Silk Strike, home to anarchists and Wobblies, the Knights of Labor, the AFL and the CIO.

“This is the only National Park in the whole country where you join the aesthetic with the historic,” said Congressman William Pascrell (D-NJ), referring to the blend of the natural beauty of the Great Falls with historic silk mills in the 35-acre park.

For Pascrell and U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ),the two Paterson natives who fought for years to make the national park a reality, yesterday’s ceremony was particularly satisfying.
For generations of immigrants, “Paterson is the Plymouth Rock,” Pascrell, a former Paterson mayor, said insistently. “This is where they came. They didn’t come to Short Hills, New Jersey. They came here to Paterson, New Jersey.”

“My father and grandfather were silk workers. Paterson is where immigrants from all over the world came to share in the American Dream, and they still do today,” Lautenberg said.

“I remember being brought to the jalls by my dad when I was a child,” he recalled. “My father loved the falls. The mist would cover our hair, but never dampen our spirits. That’s what this national park means to me.”

Like many of Paterson’s industrial workers, Lautenberg’s family paid a heavy price for its share of the American Dream. “My father Samuel died at 43, my uncle Morris was 52 and my grandfather Herman was 56 – all from cancer contracted from the chemicals and conditions in the mills,” said Lautenberg, who at age 87 is the oldest U.S. senator.

Lautenberg started his multimillion dollar company, Automatic Data Processing, out of a garage in Paterson.

Lautenberg, Pascrell, and federal officials recalled the long battle to make Paterson one of the first urban national parks. Salazar recalled that his predecessor, U.S. Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, visited the Great Falls in 1966 and envisioned it as a future National Monument.

Pascrell noted that it was former Republican Mayor Lawrence “Pat” Kramer, who was in the audience yesterday, who brought President Gerald Ford to Paterson in 1976 to designate the Great Falls and the surrounding Silk District as a National Historic Landmark. Former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey dedicated the Great Falls State Park in 2004 to further protect the site.

But the biggest threat to what is now Paterson Great Falls National Historic Park was a plan by Paterson city officials in 1996 to build 235 vinyl-sided town house on the abandoned ATP factory site along the Passaic River — land that sits in the middle of the boundary of what is now the new national park.

David Soo, who now serves as the chairman of the Paterson Historic Preservation Commission, recalled that “it took eight or nine years of grinding community activism, including lawsuits” to block the development.

“If we didn’t block that development, we wouldn’t be here today,” recalled Mayor Jones, whose political career arose partly out of his involvement in the battle against the proposed development.

“It was only after we won that fight that city officials really began thinking about what a major historic park at the Falls could mean.”

While Paterson natives Lautenberg and Pascrell were the most steadfast fighters for the park on Capitol Hill, U.S. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ) both played important roles in pushing legislation through subcommittees on which they served.

Holt and Menendez both recalled that several key Republican members of Congress were opposed to the creation of any new national parks during the Republican Bush administration, arguing that the nation could not afford to maintain the parks it already had.

Under Bush, the National Park Service turned down a 2007 proposal to create a national park in Paterson. It was not until March 31, 2009, that President Obama signed the Paterson Great Falls National Park Act as part of an omnibus park and historic preservation bill. That measure authorized the creation of the park, and the transfer of the site by the Paterson city government to the National Park Service yesterday completed the process.

Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno, who represented Gov. Chris Christie at the ceremony, noted that the park would not only highlight Paterson’s history, but also would bring jobs to the city. She noted that in Italian, the name “Guadagno” means “to earn” – an appropriate last name to bear in a city built by the hard work and industry of its immigrants.

State and city officials repeatedly cited the potential of tourism to create jobs, and their hope that the National Park Service ultimately would invest federal dollars in the park, including the creation of a major visitors center.

Boch, the new park superintendent, cautioned that development of the General Management Plan would most likely take three years, while Leonard Zax, chairman of the park’s Advisory Commission, said optimistically that he hoped the master plan could be completed in two years. Development of the General Management Plan is an inclusive process that will bring together community groups, historians, educators, government officials and other interested parties in a strictly defined planning process. Public meetings are already scheduled in Paterson November 17-19, and a team of historians from across the country are scheduled to visit Paterson in January.

“The General Management Plan will really be the defining blueprint for what the park is going to be – What will the visitors center look like? What themes we want to interpret that appeal to the 21st century, not simply the past?” said Zax, who created the Hamilton Partnership for Paterson to fight for the creation of the new national park.
“We need to decide what we want the visitor experience to be in 2021,” said Boch.

But while the National Park Service is taking a long-term perspective in its planning, Paterson area community groups, museums, and historical groups are moving ahead quickly with plans to highlight and celebrate their city’s historic heritage.

The Hamilton Partnership created a “Mill Mile” walking tour brochure that includes the Falls, historic silk and textile mills, the Rogers Locomotive Works, and the raceway system of canals through which water was diverted to power these factories. The brochure was funded with a grant provided by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

“Eventually, we want those taking the tour to be able to punch in a code on their cellphone to hear explanations of what they are seeing,” Zax said. A Great Falls youth corps made up of high school students drawn from the area helped plan the project.

Next year is the 100th anniversary of the Great Silk Strike of 1913, and leaders of the Paterson-area historical community have already begun discussions about creating a series of events to highlight the Paterson strike and the new national park in the same way that commemorative events marking the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire that killed 146 garment workers in New York City on March 25, 1911, brought that history alive for a new generation.

Boch and National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis both stressed the National Park Service’s interest in partnering with Paterson-area community groups and historical organizations on a wide range of events.

“Paterson Great Falls is a place rich with stories, from the powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution to the new generations of immigrants who came here to make a better life for themselves and a stronger nation for their children,” Jarvis said. “The National Park Service looks forward to telling those stories.”

Lautenberg, Paterson’s favorite son, couldn’t resist telling his own stories yesterday.

“I remember being here with Alexander [Hamilton],” said Lautenberg as the crowd laughed appreciatively. “We stood over here. We had such crazy ideas.”

Asked afterward why he didn’t tell the crowd that he had served as Hamilton’s second in the famous duel at Weehawken, Lautenberg quipped, “I wasn’t his second. If I had been his second, he would have won.”

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