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Summer Reading: New Books With a Jersey Connection -- 'An American River'

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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