Formed in the Ice Age in an area later inhabited by Lenape Indians and early Dutch settlers, the Great Falls on the Passaic River in northeastern New Jersey is a wonder to behold. When Alexander Hamilton visited it in 1778, he saw not a marvel of nature and a thing a beauty but a source of manufacturing power to spur the economy of budding nation.
Hamilton helped found Paterson—named for Governor William Paterson—and he commissioned no less than Pierre Charles L’Enfant, designer of Washington, DC, to lay out a system of canals to harness the falling water’s energy. There soon grew up a mill town that made cotton cloth, paper, locomotives, and even the Colt revolver and the first submarine.
Throughout the 19thCentury, immigrants streamed into the city to work in manufacturing and founded businesses in the burgeoning city. The Falls and the city that grew up around it inspired great writers. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg called Paterson home.
William Carlos Williams wrote a sprawling epic poem called “Paterson,” which won the first National Book Award for Poetry. It describes a leap over the falls by Sam Patch, who also survived going over Niagara. In a less benign and less lofty (pun intended) cultural event, the mobsters in an episode of the “Sopranos” threw a drug dealer to his death off the bridge that spans the Falls.
After many years of neglect the Paterson Great Falls National Historic Park became a part of the National Park System two years ago this coming Friday. Now the 77 foot Falls has national protection and park rangers to help visitors enjoy the sights.
Even if you can’t make it there to see The Great Falls in flood stage, here’s a film to give you a taste of its power and wonder.