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  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

Paterson Great Falls

Paterson, New Jersey, was America’s first planned city of industry and innovation. The brainchild of Alexander Hamilton, Paterson offered ingenious solutions to prevalent problems that plagued the economic welfare of young America. It challenged the status quo and laid the foundation for America’s Industrial Revolution. The tenacity and dynamism of Paterson’s ambitious workers and entrepreneurs significantly contributed to America’s rise as an international economic superpower.

Hamilton’s Grand Vision

Paterson was conceptualized in response to the damaging economic aftereffects of British colonialism and the American Revolution. As protectorates of the Crown, the United States were subject to imperial mandates that severely restricted commercial activity and increased their dependency on British goods and services. Colonists were financially exploited through excessive taxation, limited market potential, and inflated prices. It was this economic impropriety, among additional reasons, that ultimately led to the Revolutionary War—a long and bloody struggle that further devastated property, ruined domestic businesses, and crippled the available workforce in America.

The Revolution was successful in achieving American independence, but it did little to mitigate Britain’s predatory fiscal tactics. Following the war, Britain terminated its line of credit to the United States, placed trade embargos on American goods, and practiced impressment—the hijacking of American merchant ships and forced conscription of sailors into the Royal Navy—to curtail America’s commercial activity. Additionally, the United States’ industrial capacity was severely handicapped as British sanctions had restricted the establishment of manufacturing centers in colonial America, which limited the nation’s ability to compete with foreign manufacturers and further weakened their presence in the world market. These disadvantages resulted in commercial reliance and indebtedness to the British economy, a paradoxical situation for the newly sovereign nation.

National leaders realized that America needed to be economically independent in order to achieve national prosperity. However, the approach to such progress was much less obvious and sparked intense sociopolitical debates. Some legislators, predominantly from the southern and mid-Atlantic states, were proponents of agrarian society where land ownership and agricultural production fueled a market economy. Other lawmakers, mainly from the north, supported widespread industrialization as a means to increase domestic production and self-sufficiency. Agriculturists dismissed the idea of industrialization, arguing that factories and large-scale corporations would undermine the very essence of American independence and act as a gateway for poverty and vice to plague the new nation. Conversely, industrialists argued that agrarianism would not address the deficits in manufacturing capacity, perpetuate commercial dependency with Britain, and ultimately jeopardize the welfare of the nation.

One of America’s most influential industrial advocates was Alexander Hamilton, who as the nation’s first Treasury Secretary (1789 – 1795) instituted an interlocking system of laws and monetary incentives that promoted financial stability, commercial development, and economic stimulation. Hamilton’s progressive policies—outlined in his “Report on Manufactures”—laid the foundation for the American School of Economics. However, when the report was presented before Congress in December 1791, many Democratic-Republicans were hesitant to accept Hamilton’s propositions, citing the potential for corruption as a cause for concern. In response, Hamilton decided to bring his ideas to fruition. Earlier that year, Hamilton—along with Assistant Treasury Secretary Tench Coxe and financier William Duer—founded the Society for Establishing Useful Manufacturers (S.U.M.), New Jersey’s first private corporation. Hamilton aimed to use the S.U.M. as a means to establish the nation’s first planned industrial city and create a tangible example of what potential prosperity industrialization could bring to America.

In 1792, the S.U.M. purchased seven hundred acres of land along the fall line of the Passaic River and established the city of Paterson—named after New Jersey Governor William Paterson, who had signed the S.U.M.’s charter the previous year. Hamilton first encountered Passaic Falls while on campaign with the Continental Army in 1778. The young officer was astonished by the sheer power and magnitude of the roaring cascades, which kindled his desire to manufacture goods by means of water energy. Passaic Falls, in Hamilton’s eyes, was the perfect catalyst for America’s industrial revolution.

However, Hamilton’s grand vision was met with immediate financial and personnel difficulties. In March 1792, William Duer, the governor of the S.U.M. corporation, was placed in debtor’s prison following failed credit, rampant speculation, and repeated loan delinquencies. Duer’s monetary mishandlings did not simply affect his personal finances, but the entire national economy, as many of Duer’s investments were credited by the Bank of the United States. When Duer filed for bankruptcy, he defaulted on his government loans, which caused a widespread credit crisis and ultimately the financial Panic of 1792. During the Panic, the S.U.M. lost roughly $10,000 in capital—most of which was designated for machinery and factory workers—and an unspecified amount of corporate funds. Hamilton was able to subsidize some expenses from his own pocket, but the S.U.M. remained chronically under-funded due to the residual effects of the financial crisis.

The problems continued with Paterson's city plan itself. Hamilton had originally hired Pierre L’Enfant—the French-American engineer who created D.C.’s architectural layout—to construct raceways that would connect Passaic River waters to Paterson’s mills and factories. L’Enfant masterfully designed a sophisticated, multi-tiered hydropower system able to supply the necessary energy to manufactories along the water route; however, the S.U.M. dismissed L’Enfant in 1793 due to his project's overspeculation and exorbitance. In his place, the S.U.M. hired Peter Colt, who simply dammed the river and channeled its water into a single raceway down the hillside. Colt’s simplistic design was completed in 1794 and provided waterpower to Paterson’s first factory, the “Bull Mill”—a cotton mill originally powered by oxen. As Paterson grew, Colt's canal system proved to be insufficient in energy supply, and L'Enfant's concepts were eventually implemented.

Despite the completion of Paterson’s industrial infrastructure, the S.U.M. continued to struggle with poor leadership and exhausted finances. When the Bull Mill closed in 1796, the corporation abandoned its manufacturing efforts to become a real estate and energy brokerage firm. Having commercial rights to the Passaic River and Paterson’s landholdings, the S.U.M. sought to lease their properties to other investors, with the hopes that they would fulfill Paterson’s industrial potential. However, by the end of the 18th Century, Paterson was a virtual ghost town and Hamilton’s ambitious enterprise appeared to be on the brink of failure.

During the War of 1812, Paterson’s economy experienced the boom Hamilton had long envisioned. The Royal Navy had blockaded America’s major ports, which restricted European imports from reaching U.S. shores. Therefore, Americans had to rely more heavily on domestic production in order to defend themselves against the British. Paterson, with its powerful waterways and extant infrastructure, was a convenient location to cultivate American industry. The S.U.M. corporation received large investments from venture capitalists who erected sprawling manufacturing complexes below Passaic Falls. This growth and development drew the interest of thousands of workers looking for employment and opportunity. Between 1800 and 1820, Paterson saw its population grow from 500 to 5,000 residents.

The Jersey Jumper

On September 30, 1827, Paterson entrepreneur Timothy Crane prepared to unveil the city’s latest sensation. Earlier that year, he had purchased property on the north banks of the falls and constructed the Forest Gardens, a manicured commercial park built “to improve...the moral sensibilities of [his] neighbors.” The Gardens featured gravel walkways, imported trees and shrubbery, and shops and concessions for the park’s patrons. The crowning achievement to his project was the installation of the Clinton Bridge—named after New York Governor DeWitt Clinton—which spanned the chasm of Passaic Falls. Crane adamantly advertised his grand exhibition and had Paterson’s factories close the day of the unveiling to ensure that all the city’s citizens were able to witness the event.

Thousands of spectators convened around Passaic Falls for Crane’s big exposition; however, the crowd witnessed a spectacle they did not expect to see. As the bridge was being maneuvered into position, a millworker named Sam Patch emerged from the trees and stood upon the ledge of Passaic Falls. Wearing nothing but a shirt and underwear, the young man leapt nearly eighty feet into the swirling waters below. Shocked onlookers were horrified as Patch’s figure disappeared into the foamy torrents. Then, after several tense seconds, Patch miraculously crested the waters with a beaming smile as the crowd erupted in cheers and applause. The sensationalism of Patch’s death-defying feat detracted any and all attention from Crane’s keynote event.

There are two prevailing theories behind Patch’s decision to leap from Passaic Falls. The first is that Patch planned the dive as a form of protest against Crane and other upper-class elites for converting the once-public recreational area into a “private playground” for Paterson’s aristocracy. The social strata of Paterson had become increasingly polarized following the post-war boom. Business owners and entrepreneurs had seen immeasurable financial gain while the working classes remained overworked and impoverished. The opening of the Clinton Bridge and Forest Gardens was seen as an attempt by elitists to exclude the lower classes from areas of leisure. Patch’s jump was performed not only to deride high society but invigorate the working class with a sense of triumph. The second, more simplistic, explanation was that Sam performed the jump in an act of drunken showmanship. Regardless of his motivations, Patch’s actions thrusted him into the spotlight of national celebrity.

Known as the “Jersey Jumper,” Patch continued to perform dives from stupefying heights across New York and New Jersey. He conquered Passaic Falls again on July 4, 1828—a day when Crane was preparing to launch his first commercial fireworks display—and once more on July 19, in front of crowds larger than Paterson’s population. In 1829, Patch successfully jumped Niagara Falls and the High Falls of the Genesee River in New York. However, on November 13, 1829, Patch performed his last jump. Again at the Genesee River, Patch attempted to dive from a height of 125 feet. Unfortunately, he miscalculated his entry and smacked the icy waters to the “painful reflection” of nearly 8,000 spectators. The impact was assumed to have killed Patch instantly, but his frozen body was not recovered until the following Spring.

Industrial Innovation

During the 19th Century, Paterson was home several of America’s industrial firsts, including the first continuous papermaking machine (Essex Mill, 1807) and first operable submarine prototype (Holland Submarine, 1878). Perhaps one of the most revolutionary companies was the Rogers Locomotive Works, who designed the world’s first engine with driving wheel counterbalance in 1837 (known as ‘The Sandusky’). Founded in 1831, the firm was originally intended to design and manufacture textile machinery. However, the company’s founder, Thomas Rogers, became captivated by the emerging locomotive industry and restructured his business to produce steam engines. The Rogers Locomotive Works soon became the second-largest locomotive manufacturer in the country, producing more than 6,000 steam engines over a 70-year period. Two of Rogers’ most famous locomotives are The General—which gained fame in the Great Locomotive Chase during the American Civil War—and Union Pacific Engine No. 119, which was featured in the “Golden Spike” ceremony that marked the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. The Rogers Locomotive Works flourished until 1900 when manufacturing ceased due to increased competition and poor financial management. The company was sold to the American Locomotive Company in 1909 and eventually went out of business in 1923.

Another important—and perhaps more recognizable—Paterson industry was the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company founded by Samuel Colt in 1836. Colt constructed an elaborate, four-story brownstone building at the base of Passaic Falls where he manufactured his famous revolvers and firearms. In 1838, Samuel’s brother, Christopher, opened Paterson’s first silk processing plant adjacent to the gun mill. However, the silk factory was quickly abandoned by Colt and sold in 1840 to John Ryle, the “Father of the U.S. Silk Industry.” Ryle rapidly expanded productions of the processing plant and acquired Colt’s gun mill in 1842 when he relocated the Patent Arms Company to Connecticut. Ryle sowed the seeds for what would eventually blossom into Paterson’s biggest industry. By 1890, nearly half of the nation’s silk spinning and dyeing trades were located in Paterson, earning it the nickname “Silk City.”

1913 Silk Strike

Silk spinning was a skilled labor prior to industrialization and the implementation of the power loom. Following these adaptations, skilled silk weavers were increasingly replaced with unskilled laborers (predominantly women and children) who could be exploited for lower working wages and longer hours. As technologies became more sophisticated, the need for laborers in general decreased, which threatened employment opportunities overall.

In January 1913, the Doherty Silk Mill attempted to install the four-loom system, which would have required each silk weaver to operate four looms instead of their usual two. By essentially doubling each weaver’s production, the mill could afford to terminate half of their current employees and substantially increase company profit. Already overworked on the two-loom system, the millworkers vigorously rejected its application and walked out of the manufactory.

While sporadic work stoppages were commonplace, large-scale organized strikes were not due the language barriers that permeated the diverse ethnic workforce. These obstacles, however, were resolved when the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) intervened in February 1913. The IWW—whose organizers addressed Paterson’s millworkers in six different languages—brought “democratic and nonviolent techniques of organization that actively involved women and children…representing all nationalities and not subject to the supervision of more…centralized labor groups.” The IWW’s efforts influenced silk mills far beyond Paterson. According to William “Big Bill” Haywood, a founding member of the IWW, over 50,000 millworkers from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut had joined the strike that originated at Doherty Mill.

The largely peaceful protests were met with the heavy hand of strikebreakers and law enforcement. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a prominent feminist leader in the IWW, was arrested in Paterson after addressing fellow strikers on unification across racial boundaries. The authorities charged her and her conspirators with “inciting violence through radical speech.” The aggressive, but not unprecedented, response by Paterson police prompted strike organizers to move their headquarters to the neighboring city of Haledon, where socialist mayor William Brueckmann was sympathetic with their efforts. The IWW command center was the home of Pietro Botto, a skilled silk weaver and Italian immigrant. From Botto’s second-story balcony, IWW leaders held rallies and delivered speeches that attracted crowds as large as 25,000 people.

Despite rousing support, the millworkers’ strike was losing steam near the end of May. Three months of striking meant a considerable loss of wages and ability to pay rent or purchase food. Hunger was a major problem for the strikers, especially their children. Many families decided to send their kids away for “temporary adoption” to ease the financial and material burdens during the strike. While this provided marginal relief, it wasn’t enough to prevent workers from returning to the mills. In a practice known as tramp twisting, some defected strikers pursued day-to-day employment in mills across the region. This deceitful action undermined the strike’s cause and contingently blacklisted workers who refused to return to their duties.

While on the brink of failure, the Silk Strike caught the attention of New York City theologians and philanthropists, most of whom hailed from Greenwich Village. One supporter named John Reed developed an idea to organize a fundraiser and pageant play that integrated the strikers’ ideas and experiences into a spirited production. The Paterson Pageant, as it was called, premiered on June 7, 1913, at Madison Square Garden to the delight of 15,000 people. The play consisted of strike reenactments, speeches, and musical numbers performed the millworkers themselves. Nearly 1,000 Paterson citizens participated in the theatrical production; however, the pageant operated at a net loss of $2,000 since strikers were allowed to attend for ten cents apiece as opposed to the one-dollar full ticket price.

On July 28, 1913, due to insurmountable financial hardships, the millworkers and IWW relented to big business. The Silk Strike was officially over. Although many mills were devoid of workers for several months, their companies were actually able to make a profit during the strike. Thanks to an accumulated surplus of silk, Paterson manufacturers marketed their inventory at higher prices and created a “seller’s market” for their goods since they were technically no longer in production. While the manufacturers profited, over 1,800 participants were arrested and two individuals killed amid the strike’s mayhem. Although the millworkers were able to preserve the two-loom system and assured of safer working conditions, they did not receive the eight-hour workday they hoped for. That privilege would have to wait another six years.

Depression and Decline

The Silk Strike of 1913 had residual effects on Paterson’s economy. The manufacturing drought and working-class disgruntlement prompted industries of all trades to seek alternative means and locales of production, That, coupled with the Great Depression, resulted in an evaporation of Paterson’s industry. A small resurgence of commerce occurred with the onset of World War II. The Curtiss-Wright Engine Company employed nearly 25,000 Paterson residents and manufactured over 120,000 pieces of aircraft equipment during the war effort. The production was so significant, Paterson was dubbed the “Aviation City.”

In 1945, after 153 years of transformative industry and pioneering democracy, the S.U.M. sold its charter to the city of Paterson. Shortly thereafter, the city fell into a decades-long postwar manufacturing slump that was even more devastating than the Great Depression. It would ultimately be Paterson’s great undoing as a industrial powerhouse.

In the 1970s, Mary Ellen Kramer, wife of then-Mayor Lawrence “Pat” Kramer, organized a grassroots campaign to preserve and revitalize the Great Falls Historic District of Paterson. Her efforts were instrumental in blocking a proposed highway placement over the ruins of the old mills and factories. Instead, Kramer was able acquire these properties and place them on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2009, President Obama signed legislation naming Paterson Great Falls a National Historical Park, making it the 397th unit in the National Park Service today.

The Mill Mile Walking Tour

Paterson Great Falls is an awe-inspiring park that covers centuries of our nation’s socioeconomic and natural histories, much of which can be learned on the Mill Mile Walking Tour. Visitors can download an audio app and grab a brochure at the Welcome Center before embarking on this journey through Paterson’s past. The tour begins across the street from the Welcome Center at the Overlook parking lot. Here, around the bronze Alexander Hamilton statue, tourists can see an impressive view of Great Falls and the S.U.M. hydroelectric plant. Built for the Thomas Edison Electric Company in 1914, the hydroelectric plant continues to power thousands of Paterson homes this very day and is one of the premier architectural features of the park.

Following the footpath along McBride Avenue and behind the S.U.M. power plant, visitors can experience the awesome power of Passaic Falls up close on the Great Falls Bridge, which spans 260 feet over the 77-foot waterfall. Across the bridge is Mary Ellen Kramer Park, named after the aforementioned Paterson preservationist. At the park’s periphery is Hinchliffe Stadium, one of the few remaining arenas that exhibited Negro League Baseball games. Constructed in 1932, Hinchliffe was home field for the New York Black Yankees, New York Cubans, and Newark Eagles, and featured the talents of Satchel Paige, Larry Doby, and many others.

Backtracking to the intersection of McBride Ave and Spruce Street is Upper Raceway Park, which contains the narrow canals designed by L’Enfant to power Paterson’s factories. The raceways pass by the ruins of the Rogers Locomotive Works, Rosen Mill, and Ivanhoe Wheelhouse. Across the street from the canals is the Paterson Museum. The museum—housed in the renovated Roger Frame Fitting building—exhibits some impressive displays detailing Paterson’s cultural and industrial histories. It even features some original textile machinery, silk looms, steam locomotives, a collection of original Colt firearms, and one of John Holland’s original submarine prototypes.

Not included in the Mill Mile, but nonetheless interesting, are the ruins of the Colt Gun Mill and Allied Textile Printing complex. Since closing their doors in 1983, several arson attacks have reduced these once-flourishing titans of industry into heaps of brick and iron. The grounds are currently fenced-off to visitors, but several restoration projects are in the works to safely preserve these ruins and create an open-air, walk-through exhibit detailing their industrial significance. But until codifications are passed, these structures will be at the mercy of vagrants and vandals.

Paterson is a significant staple to our nation’s history. It spearheaded the Industrial Revolution and was once the embodiment of the Great American Melting Pot. While the city is no longer the commercial catalyst it had been decades prior, Paterson still stands as a vibrant and living testament to American industry, economy, and perseverance.

For more information on Paterson's history, visit their NPS website, listen to oral histories from Paterson residents, or check out Wander Wisdom and Paterson Friends of the Great Falls

Read Hamilton's 'Prospectus of the Society for Establishing Useful Manufacturers' and the dissertation below to learn more about the S.U.M.

Check out Atlas Obscura, Weird NJ, and read the document below to learn about the leap of Sam Patch

For more information about the 1913 Silk Strike, visit the VCU Library and read this article by Leslie Fishbein

Visit The History Girl and The Forgotten Past of New Jersey to view more pictures of Paterson's factory ruins


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