Monday, October 29, 2018

Tapping into New Jersey's industrial past at Paterson Great Falls National Historic Park

Less than an hour drive from the Big Apple sits a weathered city along the Passaic River, that played an integral role in the early development of American history. It's now a National Park.

Paterson Great Falls National Historic Park pays tribute to Paterson, America's first planned city of industry and innovation founded by Alexander Hamilton in 1792. Thankfully, the National Park Service has preserved and protected this special place dubbed "the cradle of American industry."

When the Revolutionary War came to an end in 1783, Alexander Hamilton who at the time was our country's first Secretary of the Treasury under President George Washington set out to make the United States financially independent and booming. While we had declared independence some fifteen years earlier, the US still fully depended on English manufacturing. That financial freedom, was now Hamilton's goal, and by establishing the town of Paterson this became possible and industrialization took off.

The National Historic Park encompasses 35 acres, wrapping around both sides of the river and Great Falls (hence the name). Leave your car at the main visitor's center, which also serves as a small museum, and cross the street towards a bronze statue of Hamilton himself. It was here on July 10, 1778, where he, George Washington, French General Lafayette, and officers from the Continental Army saw first-hand the wonders of the aggressive 77ft Great Falls.

Hamilton saw the powerful crashing water from the falls as an opportunity to (with help from a French-American city planner) build a series of canals called "raceways" which you can hike along, to move the rushing water from the top of Great Falls through the city of Paterson and down to mills below. Hike towards the bridge that spans the falls and you'll see an old hydroelectric power plant, one of the first in the country built in 1914. The S.U.M. Powerhouse (S.U.M, abbreviated for Hamilton's own Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures), Paterson was a bustling hub for silk spinning, weaving, and dyeing, earning the nickname "Silk City." The city thrived in diversity, being a go-to spot for immigrant workers to earn their riches.
As you enter into Mary Ellen Kramer Park, a short path leads you up-close and personal with the dramatic Great Falls. The adjoining park is a perfect spot to sit down, soak in the sounds of the rampant falls, and reflect back on Paterson in its hey-day. This National Historic Park is also a must for any American baseball fan. Here's why.

Next to the park, behind tall white walls with ornate figurines of athletes, is Hinchliffe Stadium (pictured below) that cannot be overlooked on a visit to Paterson Great Falls NHP.  Hinchliffe is one of the last standing stadiums used in Negro league baseball during the Jim Crow era, letting teams like the Newark Eagles, New York Black Yankees, and New York Cubans call it home. It's been ages since any kind of sporting activity boomed on the grounds at this stadium and it sits eerily vacant slowly beginning to weather and deteriorate. It became a National Historic Landmark in 2013 and the only sporting arena in the National Park Service. Bond rallies, auto racing, soccer, boxing, and celebrity performances also lit up the grounds of Hinchliffe until its demise in the late 1990s.

Continue exploring America's first industrial hot spot by following a paved path down to the lower shores of the Passaic River, with abandoned brick-faced mills and shops across the water, and pause to imagine what Paterson could have been like in its hey-day.

The Great Falls Historic District is worth a walk around too if you're a fan of old American industrial architecture. Tall brick buildings, green wooden doors, metal support beams, and rows of framed windows don flax and textile mills, wheelhouses, storage buildings for locomotive engines, and machine shops. Don't forget to make a stop at the Paterson Museum, located in the preserved Thomas Rogers Locomotive and Machine Shop, two large classic steam locomotives greet you outside the entrance to this gorgeous collection of artifacts related to both the industrial and natural history the makes Paterson so special.

The park offers a self-guided walking tour with stops throughout, which does an excellent job depicting Paterson Great Falls' rich history, via a smart phone app or an easy-to-follow paper map. Give yourself an hour or two to jump back in time, explore the gritty and rich industrial history of this urban New Jersey scene, and of course, stamp that passport book.