Summer Reading: New Books With a Jersey Connection — ‘An American River’

Paddling the Passaic, New Jersey's longest river -- and a vivid symbol both of what's wrong and right with the Garden State

2.5 American River
Mary Bruno grew up in the 1960s and 1970s along the Passaic River in North Arlington, its waters framing her youth but never to be ventured into. Now a Seattle editor, Bruno returns to New Jersey to kayak the river and write of its lure and dangers — from nature’s serenity to industry’s toxic legacy. This is the book’s first chapter.

The River

My mother told us not to play by the river, and mostly we listened. But there were times when the riverside beckoned. Like those autumn afternoons when my older brother and I played football on the lawn behind the Homelite plant with our neighborhood pals.

The Homelite lawn was a natural football field, nearly twice as long as it was wide and almost perfectly flat. The grass was a thick, green cushion that was always neatly trimmed, not surprising really since lawnmowers were one of Homelite’s premier product lines. There was no fence to bar our entry. No one ever chased us off. In fact, the Homelite workers in their dark blue coveralls would gather in the asphalt parking lot next to the field to smoke a Chesterfield or two and watch the game.

The parking lot formed the field’s eastern boundary. On the other side of the grass and all along the western sideline was the Passaic River, a slick, dark menacing presence slinking its way down to Newark Bay. Across the river, the opposite bank had been replaced by a corrugated steel bulkhead. The dark armored wall, some 30 feet high, was punctured in places by huge round storm drains. The giant metal mouths, visible at low tide, drooled a frothy runoff into the river.

The bulkhead supported a mile-long, arrow-straight stretch of Route 21. Known locally as McCarter Highway, this particular section of road was a made-to-order speedway. Teenage hoods from Newark would gather there to drag race their GTOs. On summer nights, the whine and squeal of engines and brakes would drift across the river and seep into our dreams.

The Passaic is a tidal river by the time it reaches the Homelite plant. When the tide was in, the water would creep right up to the lip of the field. We never ran sweeps to the river side, always observing a five-foot buffer zone between our play and the water’s edge.

There was another group of kids hanging around the Homelite field one afternoon. They were older kids, strangers to me. They were horsing around at the other end of the field. Kibitzing, my father would have called it. The Homelite workers eyed them suspiciously before ducking into their cars to head home.

When the parking lot had emptied and the sun had nearly set, another boy appeared. He was a husky boy, strong, with straight brown hair and roses in his cheeks. He walked across the grass on the diagonal, a path that took him between our game and the older boys’ horseplay without disturbing either.

He was on his way home from football practice. He was wearing his uniform–Irish green jersey and white pants–and carrying his helmet by the face mask. The chinstrap made a ticking sound as it slapped against the helmet’s plastic side.

I didn’t hear what the older boys said to the football player. He paused, turned in their direction, then proceeded on his way, a little faster than before. They caught up with him at the far corner of the field, the river side. We had stopped our play by then, and stood nearby, in a huddle, watching.

The biggest boy shoved the football player in the chest. The football player shoved back. There was a scuffle and in the midst of it one of the other boys grabbed the helmet.

It was a beautiful helmet, snow white against the gathering dusk, no scuffs or grass stains, its top as smooth and round and shiny as a cue ball. The boys taunted the football player with their prize, yapping and hooting and prancing around him like jackals at a kill.

After a minute or two of this, the biggest boy, the one who started everything, stepped into the circle and claimed the helmet for himself. He raised it over his head and held it there. He locked eyes with the foot- ball player. Then, with a windmill motion of his arm, he hurled the white helmet into the Passaic.

It splashed in upside down, not 30 feet from where we all stood, gaping, near the water’s edge. The helmet righted itself somehow and bobbed briefly, like a buoy, or a skull.

Frantic, the football player waded in after it. He skidded and slipped on the oil-slicked rocks. He sank to his ankles in the river’s black sediment. Knee deep in the Passaic, its water staining his white pants a fecal brown, he tried to rescue the helmet with a tree branch. He managed to snag the facemask, but the river wouldn’t let go.

Any one of us should have been able to dive right in and save that helmet. The water couldn’t have been more than four feet deep where it went down. But we didn’t. And the football player didn’t either. No one dove into the Passaic River.

The Passaic wasn’t fearsome in any traditional sense. It didn’t rage or thunder. It didn’t loll along and then suddenly turn into a boil or hurl itself over a cliff — not this far downstream anyway. It wasn’t icy cold or booby trapped with eddies. It wasn’t even that wide; a dog-paddler could make it all the way across. But the river scared us just the same.

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We were afraid of its impenetrable darkness. Afraid of its industrial smell. We were afraid of the things that lived beneath its surface and the things that had died there. We were afraid of spotting a hand or a head bobbing in the rafts of garbage that floated by. We were afraid of submerged intake valves that sucked water into the factories along the banks. We were afraid of the river’s filth. It wasn’t the kind of filth that came from playing football with your friends. It was grownup filth. The kind that scared the blue out of water and coated the riverbank with oily black goo. It was the kind of filth you could taste; the kind that could make you sick, maybe even kill you. We were afraid of getting splashed with river water or of touching river rocks. We were afraid of falling in or—God forbid—going under. We were afraid of the river’s anger at being so befouled, and afraid, most of all, of the revenge we felt certain the river would exact. The Passaic claimed the white helmet. It could claim us too.

It was 1960 in North Arlington, New Jersey, my hometown, a small borough on the Passaic’s eastern shore just five miles upriver from Newark. This industrial lower stretch was our Passaic. My mother told us not to play by the river, but she didn’t have to.

Many years later, in September 2005, I took my first cruise on the Passaic River with the NY/NJ Baykeeper Association, the New Jersey- based nonprofit that has taken up the river’s cause. Our boat was a 16-foot Aqua Patio. It looked like a floating hot tub, all white with a high freeboard and banquette seating, ideal for the civilian river trips that the Baykeeper regularly runs up the Passaic. The two-hour tour took us about three miles upriver, from the mouth in south Newark to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center at the north end of downtown. It was the first time I had ever actually been out on the Passaic.

I took a seat in the bow with a pair of environmental engineers from Pennsylvania and three attorneys from the Rutgers Environmental Law Center. Janice and Martin, a retired couple from New York, were squeezed into the stern alongside two researchers from the New York Academy of Sciences, who were studying the ecology of New York Harbor.

Skipper Bill Sheehan, the Hackensack Riverkeeper, had the helm amidships. He was sturdy and gruff with a shark tooth necklace and a bushy red moustache. He leaned against the gunwale, just in front of Janice, one hand on the wheel. He had the look of a cop, or a bartender, or the ship’s captain that he was — the look of someone who is comfortable being in charge.

Our host, Andy Willner, was a sunnier presence. It was the first time I had met Andy in person. He had a full gray beard and a thick shag of salt and pepper hair. A 35mm camera swung from his neck. He used his free hand — the one that wasn’t gesticulating — to brace the camera against his middle-aged paunch. Andy had made this trip upriver on many, many occasions, but he snapped pictures with the eagerness of a first-timer, pointing out his favorite bridge and marveling aloud at the play of sunlight on the glass facades of the new office towers along the shore. Wonder lived next to outrage in his heart.

We set out from the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commissioners’ (PVSC) massive sewage treatment plant on the shores of Newark Bay. Neat and surprisingly odorless, the 172-acre complex of circular tanks, pipes, pumps and stacks processes waste for 1.3 million residents in New Jersey’s Passaic, Bergen, Essex and Hudson counties.

Once we cleared the dock, Andy unfurled a nautical chart and located our position in the labyrinth of bays, tidal inlets, islands and marsh. Raritan Bay was below us, linked to Newark Bay by the Arthur Kill, a tidal strait that separates New Jersey from Staten Island. Across Newark Bay to the east lay the so-called Meadowlands, the salt marsh that is home to the Hackensack River. Above us, and well within view, were the mouths of the Hackensack and the Passaic. The two rivers flow down from the north and squeeze the last bite of land between them into a chubby, muddy “V” called Kearny Point before they disappear into Newark Bay.

Andy straightened up, and with a sweep of his right arm, lassoed up the view. “All these bays were much larger,” he said. “They were all extraordinary wetlands. The Passaic was one of the most bountiful rivers in the whole system, this estuarine stream with tributaries coming into it and a marsh system all around it.”

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I strained to picture the scene that Andy was describing. Like so much wild habitat in New Jersey, the wetlands that surround Newark Bay have been manhandled over time. In most places their transformation is so complete that discerning the natural features of the landscape is an exercise in extreme imagination. The once sinuous outline of Newark Bay, scalloped by coves and inlets and the mouths of its tidal rivers and creeks, is now ruler straight thanks to a century-long parade of large-scale public and private development projects. “You can see how geometric the shore- line is,” said Andy, tapping the chart. “These are big fills.”

The transformation of the Newark Meadows began in 1914 when the city of Newark, hungry for real estate, began reclaiming the marshland along the western shore of Newark Bay. Port Newark came first. The city dredged a mile-long shipping channel in the bay. They mixed the dredgings with garbage and ash and heaped the malodorous blend on top of the salt marsh until the landfill was firm enough to support the docks and warehouses that followed. By 1974, the Newark Meadows had completely disappeared, buried beneath the Port Newark/Elizabeth Marine Terminal, the Newark Liberty International Airport and the New Jersey Turnpike. Similar landfill operations soon claimed much of the eastern shore of Newark Bay too. Stands of white fuel storage tanks now occupy acres of former salt marsh in Bayonne. Welcome to the Garden State.

This massive industrial footprint is the first impression that most visitors to the state will have, certainly the millions who arrive and depart by way of Newark airport. And it’s a lasting impression. The industrialization of the Newark Bay marshland has done more to stereotype New Jersey than all the jokes about big hair and the Mob. Newark Airport, Port Elizabeth, the New Jersey Turnpike and the Bayonne and Elizabeth fuel tanks are, alas, the icons of my home state.

My fellow Aqua Patio passengers seemed unfazed by the industrial sights and smells. Most were there on business. The environmental engineers were reconnoitering the Passaic for a client who had just bought riverfront property; the scientists were exploring the Passaic, Hackensack and Hudson River estuaries for a larger survey of New York Harbor; the lawyers were compiling an inventory of structures and businesses along the river. Janice and Martin were just looking for something interesting to do on a pleasant autumn afternoon. “Marty loves to be out on the water,” Janice told me. The couple read about the Baykeeper tours in the newspaper, and drove out from their home in Manhattan.

They couldn’t have picked a better day. The sky was a cloudless blue, the temperature a delightful 75 degrees. It was the kind of Indian summer evening that can make even the Passaic River look good. And it did look good. The water was actually blue. Its surface, miraculously free of debris, rippled and sparkled with every breeze. The sun was slipping lower in the sky. Three fingers from the horizon. Now two. The light was sharp and golden. We were sailing through honey.

We passed abandoned factories and rotting docks on the Newark side of the river, and a junkyard with towers of pancaked sedans, and acres of red and blue shipping containers stacked seven high. Backlit and spectral, each eyesore possessed its own odd beauty. They recalled a vanished era, the mid-19th century, when Newark was a king of U.S. manufacturing and the banks of the Passaic teemed with commerce.

About three miles upriver, just north of the Benjamin Moore paint factory, we came to the Diamond Shamrock Superfund site. The address, 80 Lister Avenue, is on the far eastern edge of Newark, in the city’s historic Ironbound neighborhood. Bill Sheehan maneuvered the boat in closer to shore, and shifted the engine into neutral. Most of the passengers stood— to take pictures, pay respects. Diamond isn’t the only contaminated site along the Passaic, but it is by far the most notorious. For Passaic River advocates, 80 Lister Avenue is a battle cry.

From 1951 to 1983, the Diamond Shamrock plant manufactured pesticides and weed killers and close to a million gallons of Agent Orange, the defoliant that U.S. military aircraft sprayed onto the jungles of South Vietnam during the war. The process of making Agent Orange generated huge quantities of dioxin, a poisonous by-product that remains the most carcinogenic substance known to man. Diamond’s dioxin poisoned its workers, its plant site, the surrounding neighborhood and the river too. We had been right to be afraid of the Passaic.

The remains of the Diamond Shamrock plant had been entombed within the gray concrete mound we were floating past. It was the high- light of the tour. Roughly eight feet high and about the size of a foot- ball field, the mound was secured behind a concrete bulkhead and a steel fence, sealed with multiple layers of clay, and capped with concrete and an impermeable geofabric membrane. Within this waterproof six-acre grave lie the remains of the deconstructed Diamond factory buildings and 932 shipping containers filled with 66,000 cubic yards of dioxin-contaminated dirt, dust and debris that environmental cleanup crews literally vacuumed from the streets, stores, schools, houses, playgrounds and empty lots near the Lister Avenue property.

A few thousand years from now, said Bill Sheehan, archeologists studying this site will conclude that the people of the late 20th century “built monuments to their pollution the way the ancient Egyptians built monuments to their pharaohs.” With that, he kicked the engine back in gear and we continued slowly upstream. The skyline of downtown Newark was just ahead. Late afternoon sunlight lasered off the smoked glass facade of the FBI’s new riverside tower.

“How come there are no other boats on the river?” asked Janice. Her face was hidden beneath the peak of her white cotton cap, which was pulled low against the harsh sun. It was a good question, direct and obvious, and it cut to the heart of things. Even the poison mound, and the Mad Max landscape and the occasional doomsday commentary from Andy and Bill hadn’t managed to spoil the simple joy of being out on the water.

My mother would have liked this boat ride. She always dreamed of living by the water. Whenever she would mention this, my father would tease her: “You do!” he’d say. “You live by the Passaic.”

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There was a time when people would have coveted our home above the river. The Passaic was valued once, even beloved. Civic leaders harnessed its power to fuel their industrial revolution. Artists immortalized its beauty in paintings and verse. The river’s clear, navigable waters sustained the settlers, who farmed and fished its fertile basin, and built cities and towns, like mine, along its banks. But those days didn’t last.

The Passaic’s beauty had been ravaged and its bounty spent long before Janice posed her question. No one in my large extended family ever mentioned, or seemed to mourn the river’s passing. The Passaic was something we crossed over or drove along, but it was never something we engaged. The river was like an elephant in the living room of my child- hood. Its death was a ho-hum fact of life, like Friday night shore traffic on the Garden State Parkway or Hudson County politicians on the take. Some people must have fought for the river once. But the battle was long over. The river lost.

How come there were no other boats on the Passaic River on this perfect late September afternoon? I knew the answer to Janice’s question.

There are hundreds of thousands of waterways in the continental United States, 3.5 million miles of endlessly moving liquid. How many of these are technically rivers is a rather tricky question. “River” is not a scientific term. Indeed, science is a little laissez-faire when it comes to classifying a waterway as, say, a river versus a stream. It’s not surprising then that rivers vary greatly in size and habit. Some are quite small, like the D River in Oregon, which flows 120 feet through Lincoln City to the Pacific Ocean. Some rivers are massive, like the Missouri, which at 2,450 miles is America’s longest. Some rivers are ephemeral, surging into being after a desert downpour only to vanish with the rain, leaving behind nothing but a lacework of empty washes that hold the promise and threat of rushing water until the next big downpour. A few rivers, like Florida’s Kissimmee, form gigantic puddles that sheet in slow motion, the gentlest flood inching across a grassy sea some 40 miles wide. Taken together, America’s rivers drain the countryside like a giant open vascular system that collects water from the interiors of the continent and transports it to the seas. Their precious cargo is pirated along the way for drinking, bathing, irrigating, recreating and for powering millions of homes and industries.

Like the Passaic, most rivers are the raison d’etre for the communities and industries that have sprouted along their banks. There are thousands of river towns in the United States—Minneapolis, St. Louis, New Orleans, Augusta, Savannah, Albuquerque, El Paso, Cincinnati, Wheeling, Great Falls, Bismarck, Kansas City, Sioux City, Omaha, Trenton, Toledo, Fort Wayne, Wilmington. Those are just some of the larger ones. The Passaic spawned Newark (1666) and Paterson, New Jersey (1791), as well as dozens of smaller communities, and like most urban rivers, the Passaic has paid dearly for its largesse.

In strictly physical terms, the Passaic is a modest river, just 86.05 miles long.1 Nevertheless, it is New Jersey’s longest river, edging out the Raritan by a scant five miles. The name Passaic means “peaceful valley” in the language of the Lenni Lenape, the Native American tribe that occupied northern New Jersey before white settlers arrived.

The river rises in Mendham, a historic township in north central Jersey. It heads almost due south at first, then veers sharply north, then northeast, then due east and then south again, making two final northward loops before emptying into Newark Bay. This erratic path traces a sloppy, upside down U that winds through, over, under, and around five New Jersey counties, some 40 its cities and towns, three swamps, four dams, four meadows, four waterfalls, a pond, a lake, 53 bridges and seven high- ways, and past countless homes, parks, playing fields, parking lots, diners, junkyards, office buildings, shopping centers, gas stations, warehouses and factories. The drive from Mendham to Newark is about 30 miles. The Passaic takes the long way around.

Through its 86-mile course, the Passaic is many rivers: swift and clear in its upper stretch, sluggish and swampy in midsection, a thundering cascade at Great Falls, brackish below the Dundee Dam, and so industrial in its final miles that New Jersey poet laureate William Carlos Williams declared it “the vilest swillhole in Christendom.”2

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The river can be divided into three long stretches. The Upper Passaic is a largely downhill romp through meadows and forest along the south- eastern edge of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. The Central Basin is the long, flat, flood-prone middle reach that flows north for some 40 miles through an ancient lakebed. The Lower Valley, where I grew up, is a 35-mile-long corridor that sweeps down from the cliffs of Paterson to the sea level marshes of Newark.

This convoluted journey from pristine headwaters to Superfund site mirrors the triumphant and tragic relationship between nature and industry in America. The wildness and beauty that awed the first settlers some 400 years ago eventually powered the mills, farms and factories that produced clothes, food, steel and electricity, a robust international trade and a large and solid middle class. But along the way, the mighty frontier that helped forge American enterprise and character fell victim to an industrial fervor that seemed, at every turn, to sacrifice natural resources for financial gain. The power and much of the breathtaking natural beauty of our national rivers survives today only in isolated patches, and then just barely. “Our tools are better than we are,” wrote the late naturalist Aldo Leopold in his 1949 environmental classic A Sand County Almanac. “They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides. But they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.” As my great grandmother, Emily Sullivan, liked to say: “Don’t shit in the nest.” The Passaic River is an object lesson in what can happen when we ignore that simple, salty advice.

The Passaic changes character in the Lower Valley portion of its run. Above its mouth in Newark Bay, the Dundee Dam crosses the river. The Passaic is freshwater above the dam. Below, the river becomes a swirl of freshwater and seawater whose salinity varies with conditions of weather, river flow and ocean tide. Water levels in the river fluctuate about five feet with each daily tide. During extreme high tides, the Passaic can rise as much as eleven feet. When conditions are right—a high tide during the dry summer season, for instance—the tongue of saltwater from Newark Bay can lick the Dundee Dam, a full 17 miles upstream.

The tide was going out on the day the football player lost his helmet. I remember the river receding as we played on the Homelite field that afternoon. I imagine the white helmet drifting down through the lighter layer of fresh water, then farther still through the heavier salt layer, until it reached the river’s mucky bottom. It may be there still, buried like dioxin beneath two generations of mud and silt. Or maybe the tide took the helmet with it, out to sea.

The Aqua Patio passengers were all quieter on the return trip, even Bill and Andy. I wondered what everyone would take away from this experience. Andy used the Passaic River cruises to shake people up, open their eyes, confront them with the tragedy and the possibility of the Passaic. Later that summer, he would take the mayors of Newark and Harrison out on the river. Baykeeper hosts cruises for local business leaders, for the press and for the general public too.

“Our job is to make advocates of people,” said Andy. He was giving me a lift back to my car, steering his Subaru Outback slowly along the paved streets that wind through the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commissioners’ plant from the riverside dock to the parking lot at the main entrance. “Remember Moby Dick?” he asked, out of the blue. “The first chapter is all about Manhattan. When industry and pollution kind of took the water away from people, the people responded appropriately: they turned their backs on the waterway and took on other interests. Same thing with the Passaic. When the Passaic became foul, when it was no longer a place to picnic and boat and swim, it became less known to everyone except the people who worked on it. And those people used it as a highway and a toilet, and when it started to smell bad and people started to hear warnings about it, the Passaic became an unknown place.”

I left Andy standing in the parking lot, deep in conversation with the two environmental engineers from the cruise. I tooted the horn and waved to them as I passed through the gates and out of the plant. Then I fished my rumpled directions from the glove compartment and followed them backwards to my brother Paul’s house in Cranford, where I always crash when I’m visiting New Jersey. We call it the Cranford Hilton.

My maiden voyage on the Passaic River had the desired effect. Andy would have been pleased. I didn’t get over my fear of the river. But after the boat ride that fear mingled with curiosity and a kind of compassion. The river had touched me. Look at me, it seemed to say. Listen.

The lower Passaic has been unknown and unloved for more than a century now. That’s a long, sad estrangement from the two generations of New Jerseyites who live on and near its shores. But unknown is not unknowable. Unloved is not unlovable. Driving back to Cranford that evening, I decided to kayak down the Passaic. Paddling its length seemed like a good way to get reacquainted. It was time I got to know my hometown river.