Periodically, we like to take little day trips to explore corners of our new home state, New Jersey. Among our destinations, we’ve explored Frenchtown, Manasquan, and Sandy Hook. Last week, we went to the most peculiar and oddly fascinating locale thus far: the Great Falls in Paterson, New Jersey.
We had first heard—well, read—about the Falls in an October 2010 article by Star-Ledger reporter Peter Genovese listing 25 Jersey points of interest. Since one of these was the Pulaski Skyway and another the swamps at the Meadowlands, this quirky sightseeing guide really sparked our interest. So finally we got a pretty day free of deadlines; we did some research around the neighborhood (translation: we found a place to eat lunch and a possible dinner plan) and headed out, prepared for a trek in and communion with nature.
Which is not the case at all with the Great Falls. Which is what makes this landmark so fascinating and thought-provoking.
So we get to Paterson, and it is run down, crumbling, and dilapidated. And then we try to find the Falls. We follow the historic and national park markers, only to find out that the road by the park entrance is under construction. So we cross this bridge and the neighborhood is old and shabby and suddenly—there’re the Falls. Right there. RIGHT there.
We drove back down the hill and stumbled upon a wonderful (and free) museum. It had textile machinery and toy trains and Lou Costello’s front door. And antique apothecary supplies and art and lots of other neat stuff. But the most compelling for me was the Jacquard loom. I had vaguely read about this, but to see a loom with punch cards that translated into a pattern made it clear why this is considered a direct precursor to the computer. And it dates to the late 1700s; amazing.
Later, we go to the waterfall, which is magnificent (seventy-seven feet tall, and second only to Niagara Falls east of the Mississippi, according to the New Jersey Community Development Corporation), and now we start to understand why it is where it is—or rather, why Paterson is where it is. Alexander Hamilton thought this up: one sign we saw called Paterson the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. It was the first planned industrial city, harnessing the power of the falls through a series of raceways to fuel a host of mighty factories: textiles, firearms, trains. These factories, in their day, must have been the crème de la crème. Even today, you can see the fine brickwork, the noble architecture. These were proud buildings, from a time when our country made things. And Paterson must have been a proud city. I am not trying to romanticize or gloss over the abuses of capitalism (Paterson apparently was the focus of anti-child labor agitation, had a six-month-long silk strike in 1913, and was bombed by anarchists in 1919), but there was a queer feeling I had seeing the restored Silk Machinery Exchange pictured below and contrasting it with what we had seen (admittedly very little; Paterson is eight square miles and has, according to Wikipedia, the second highest population density in the country after New York City).
Notwithstanding, our visit to Paterson—and this juxtaposition of old and contemporary—set me off on a melancholic train of thought. This was the Silicon Valley of its day, founded by the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures—a forerunner of private-public joint venture ; these edifices were erected with optimism and faith in the future. Seeing what that future became just two blocks from the Silk Exchange is sad and sobering. What are the people of our great cities—and, as here in Asbury, our small cities—to do when our nation’s industry has become exotic methods of wealth creation and manipulation?
For more about Paterson—which is a haunting place, and we are so glad to have visited—see this site from the Library of Congress (don’t miss the essay on Paterson’s Hot Texas Weiner Tradition—that’s what we had for lunch at Libby’s), and the photos from A History of Paterson. And also, we ventured onto Market Street and brought home a Peruvian chicken for dinner. The neighborhood, though shabby, was not so scary once we were actually in it, and the people were friendly, and the food more than fine. There is such richness in exploring locally.