By Renate Strub
We could feel the vibration in the air and on our skin. A balmy breeze occasionally carried a cool mist over the broad expanse, touching our faces. Standing on the Overlook of the magnificent Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park early in the morning, we were dazzled by the sight and thunderous sound of the waterfall. The soft sunrays reflected on the fringes of the water sheets cascading 77 feet down the craggy cliffs of the narrow Passaic River Gorge, only to land in a tranquil blue pool at the bottom.
Less than an hour west of New York City, the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park is located in Paterson, New Jersey. This 119-acre Historic Landmark District tells a century-old history set amid a stunning spectacle of nature.
This region’s history starts with Alexander Hamilton, the brilliant first United States Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton believed that industrializing the young nation would help the United States achieve financial independence. With that in mind, and on his initiative, the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures (S.U.M.) was created in 1791. In 1792, the Society purchased 700 acres of land around the Great Falls. Thus Paterson came into existence – a city named for New Jersey Governor William Paterson.
The Society hired Pierre Charles L’Enfant to harness the energy of the Passaic River. Diverting water just above the falls, Pierre developed a system of water channels to provide power for mills and manufacturing plants along the river. Born in Paris, Pierre (or Peter, as he called himself in the United States) Charles L’Enfant was an engineer and architect who also designed the basic plan for Washington, D.C.
This power system, the most significant at that time, made possible the establishment of mills and manufacturing sites associated with the textile industry. Manufactures of firearms – such as the first revolver by Samuel Colt – and railroad locomotives factories came later.
But it was the enormous volume of excellent silk produced by dozens of silk-manufacturing and silk-dying sites in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that put Paterson on the map, earning it the nickname “Silk City.”
No longer “Silk City,” Paterson nowadays is a mixture of different socio-economic neighborhoods. We spent all our time at the waterfall, so we didn’t venture beyond the park.
To start our tour, we parked at the Overlook Park off McBride Avenue. From here we had the iconic view of the cascading waterfall. Across the street is the Welcome Center where we learned about available tours and programs and picked up brochures.
The Park’s website has a graphic map of an aerial view of the park and surrounding area. The homepage also has a link to download an App to be used together with the self-guided walking tour; other links inform about directions, history, and the Paterson Museum.
For the history buffs among you, the interesting Paterson Museum has excellent exhibits of textile machinery, the first Colt firearms, antique locomotives, and the first prototype of a submarine by John Holland. The museum is at Spruce Street corner of Market Street, just a few steps from the Overlook Park.
A footbridge high across the Passaic River offers a stunning close-up view of the waterfalls. At the end of the bridge is the Mary Ellen Kramer Park. Many varieties of flowering plants, trees, and bushes frame winding pathways. Comfortable benches along the way let visitors relax while watching the waterfalls, or just listening to their roar. This park underwent extensive work and reopened in August 2015.
Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park is perfect for a day trip any time of the year. It is stunning even on cold winter days when frigid temperatures transform the flowing waters into whimsical white sculptures.
As Loren Eiseley once said, “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”
Map of the park and surrounding area: www.nps.gov/pagr/planyourvisit/maps.htm
All Photos by Renate Strub