City of Industry

Red brick mills line a street; painted on the sides, the front one advertises the "Paterson Silk Machinery Exchange" & "Looms, warpers, winders, quillers, coppers, jacquards, & supplies."

VIP Terry McKenna

Sir, Last night Mr. Mort and myself returned from the Pasaic (sic) Falls – one of the finest situations in the world (we believe) can be made there – The Quality of the Water is good and in sufficient quantity to supply works Of almost any extent, everything necessary as to situation is here to be found…the situation so far exceeds our Expectations that We are very desirous you should see it…”

- Letter from William Hall to Alexander Hamilton, September 1791


City of Industry

Paterson, New Jersey, holds a unique place in history. It was here, in the nation's first planned industrial city, that the Industrial Revolution got a foothold. Centered around the Great Falls of the Passaic River, Paterson was founded as a bold experiment, pioneering systems of business and mechanization. It was here that manufactories which enabled the young United States to become a global economic power were established and promoted. In the process, Paterson experienced all the economic highs and lows that can befall an industrial center. Paterson's continued story, one of industry, innovation, and immigration, is a key part of America's - an ongoing experiment driven most importantly by persistance and resilience in the face of adversity.

Painting of Alexander Hamilton - the greyish haired man wears a dark coat and white cravat
Portrait of Alexander Hamilton, completed in 1806 by John Trumbull two years after Hamilton's fatal duel

National Portrait Gallery

Revolutionary Origins

The area which makes up Paterson was first inhabited by the Lenape, who called the "Lenapehoking" home for over 18,000 years. Starting in the 17th century, Dutch settlers moved into the region - fourteen Dutch families established themselves here, later dividing their 100-acre plots of land into smaller farm units. The Dutch were followed by the English, who wrested control of the New Netherlands colony from them in 1674. Over 100 years later, in 1792, the area would undergo a transformation, one started by a private state-sponsored corporation led by Alexander Hamilton.

During the American Revolutionary War, Alexander Hamilton was keenly aware of the industrial causes of the conflict. As an English holding, the American colonies were reliant upon Britain for most manufactured goods, whose production they enabled through the extraction of North America's natural resources. Prohibited by law from establishing industry, issues of supply, demand, trade, and tariffs were fundimental to the grievences of the colonies and the conflict's cause.

After the war, Hamilton began promoting his views on the economic needs of the new nation, serving as the first Secretary of the Treasury from 1789 - 1795. Concerned by the lack of manufacturing in the United States, he believed that a strong industrial system was the best way to help the new nation gain financial independence and become a world presence.

Logo for the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures - a round wreath and text encircle a busy straw beehive framed by a grape trellis
Seal & logo of the Society for the Establishment of Useful Manufactures

Library of Congress

Establishing Useful Manufactures

Towards that goal, Hamilton co-founded the "Society for Establishing Usefull Manufactures" (S.U.M.) in 1791. This manufacturing society would be operated by private interests with governmental support. The charter for the S.U.M. called for the society to both manufacture goods and trade in them. It was this entity which, in May of 1792, purchased 700 acres of land above and below the Great Falls, establishing the City of Paterson.

The site was chosen for its plentiful water, located on a large change in elevation, as well as ample stocks of timber and stone. Located between New York and Philadelphia, it offered easy access to consumer markets, sources of financial capital, and large populations and immigration ports to supply a workforce. The community was named for New Jersey Governor William Paterson; an ardent supporter of Hamilton's plans, he signed the S.U.M.'s charter in November of 1791. With this, Paterson became the first planned industrial city in the nation - an experiment to test if business, industry, and innovation would allow the nation to thrive and survive both in times of peace and war.

Diagrams show the growth of Paterson NJ's raceway system from 1792 - the present; as the waterpower network expands around the falls, so too does the street grid & the number of buildings
Paterson's growth was directly fed by the raceway system. Dropping over three tiers allowed maximum use of the water - the different shades of blue corresponding with elevation, from high above the falls (at left) to low below (at right)

Historic American Engineering Record (HAER)

Power & Production

The S.U.M. was not an immediate success - Paterson's early years saw significant financial and personnel difficulties. Over-speculation on the part of S.U.M.'s directors and financial panics plagued the enterprise. Planning was also difficult; Pierre Charles L'Enfant, a French military and civil engineer who famously laid out the street grid of Washington, D.C., was notably tempermental. After he abandoned the project, the S.U.M. secured a replacement in Peter Colt, of Hartford, Connecticut, in 1793.

Despite these problems, the first cotton mill was built shortly after the land was purchased; the water power network was still unfinished, so this "Bull Mill" was operated by ox-power. The first "raceway" was built in early 1794, an artificial channel drawing water from above the falls and directing it to useful locations. A second cotton mill opened later that year. Initially quiet, the town boomed during the War of 1812 before suffering setbacks after the war, as foreign textiles became more easily obtained.

More raceways and "tailraces" provided expanded access to waterpower, allowing additional mills to be built. Completed as a three-tiered system, they took advantage of the change in elevation above and below the falls, allowing water from one factory to be reused by another. Waterwheels, and later turbines, initially powered these factories directly via a system of gears, shafts, and belts. Later, they turned generators to produce a more flexible power source: electricity. As other industries were built along this system, the S.U.M. transitioned from direct manufacturing to selling water power, real estate, and eventually generating electricity.

A colored illustrated map of Paterson NJ from 1880, a bustling city seen from Garret Mountain full of homes, large buildings, and bustling industries. Examples are featured: breweries, silk mills, iron rolling factories, ornate buildings, and banks
By the late 1800s, Paterson, NJ was a bustling center of industry. Canals, roads, and railroads funneled people and raw resources in, and exported finished products worldwide

Library of Congress

Production & People

As the years progressed, manufacturing in Paterson became more diversified. In addition to cotton and wool textiles, Paterson produced the first continuous rolls of paper in the nation, building materials and machinery, and locomotives and firearms. Paterson's rope, hemp, and sailcloth supplied both the Navy and Coast Guard, as well as record-breaking racing ships and merchant vessels. This diversification was key to Paterson's success, even as industries were affected by changing levels of supply and demand.

The city required a massive workforce, and employment opportunities attracted workers from around the world. Immigrants from England, Ireland, France, Russia, Poland, and Germany were among the first to make Paterson their home. Each group brought their language and culture, with enclaves in the city supporting vibrant communities. Many of these immigrants opened stores and businesses, while others founded new industries, such as breweries and bakeries.

Black and white photo taken 9/21/1900 of a new 4-6-0 steam locomotive #265 on a heavy railed flatbed dragged by a team of 32 horses past tall downtown buildings in Paterson NJ as crowds look on
Paterson's manufacturing boom at end of the 19th & start of the 20th century saw factories churning out everything from fine thread to locomotives; industrial scenes were a part of daily life for Patersonians of all walks of life

Paterson Museum

The height of Paterson's industrial strength came in the 1890s. While there had been silk mills in the city since the mid-1800s, by the end of the 19th century the explosive growth and density of silk manufacturers earned Paterson the nickname "Silk City". Nearly half of all silk in the United States was processed in this single city of less than nine square miles, shipped to and from it by high-priority express freight trains.

The engines hauling those trains were built in sprawling manufactories often directly adjacent to the textile mills. From 1832 until 1923, Paterson was a center of global railroad manufacturing, as the Rogers Locomotive and Machine Works (formerly Rogers, Ketchum, and Grosvernor), the Cooke Locomotive and Machine Works, the Grant Locomotive Works, and the American Locomotive Company produced thousands of engines, rotary snowplows, and equipment shipped worldwide. Paterson's engines were present at the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, helped dig the Panama Canal, and tied the globe together in a network enabling faster, cheaper shipping of bulk goods and people - allowing Paterson and the nation to thrive as part of a global economy.


Labor Activism

The record profits generated by the mills were not shared equitably, however. As mill owners and company shareholders enjoyed record-breaking profits by the mid-19th century, the workers laboring in the factories often struggled with poverty, and issues of wages, hours, and safety were a source of social conflict between workers, business owners, and civic leaders. Paterson has long been a center of labor activism, and was the site of one first strikes in the nation in 1835. Over 2,000 workers, largely children, struck for reduction in their thirteen hour, six-day work week - this two-month "Baby Strike," although broken, resulted in a slight shortening in hours.

1913 black & white photo of a 1913 May Day parade shows a bus of striker's children from Paterson surrounded by a crowd of mostly men in bowler hats in downtown New York City
Paterson's working population - including children - have been a major part of history of the labor movement

Library of Congress

In 1913, Paterson was the labor movement's focal point as declining wages, poor working conditions, and long hours pushed workers to their limit. The final straw was the introduction of a "multi-loom" system at the Doherty Silk Company's neighboring Clifton plant; new technology enabled mill operators to assign workers to larger numbers of automated machines per person.

For six months, 20,000 workers sustained a general strike, with heavy support from the International Workers of the World and a massive pageant at Madison Square Garden. However, the strike ended in defeat for all involved. None of the strikers demands were met, and many were blacklisted from the industry. Mill owners, frightened, held back on plant improvements, and several companies removed their operations from Paterson as economic pressure encouraged a shift towards the south and west, closer to raw material supplies and looser local labor laws. One striker, Vincenzo Madonna, was killed by a scab worker, and bystander Valentino Modestino was shot by a private detective while holding his child on his porch.

Although it failed, the 1913 Silk Strike focused national attention on the plight of mill workers, and laborers in Paterson would play a continued role in the struggle for improved working conditions nationwide. Paterson's silk industry would limp on, but never at their 1890s height.

Black & white photo of workers in white technician's coats labeled "Wright Aero Corps" & dark overalls fit parts on an assembly line to rows of radial aircraft engines on rolling carts in a long, well-lit building as two managers confer
Variety of industries helped Paterson remain a thriving urban center - as locomotive manufacturing trailed off in the 1920s aircraft manufacturing offered continued employment opportunities and economic growth

Paterson Museum

Booms & Busts

As with many other Northeastern industrial cities, Paterson's fortunes continued on an uneven course through the twentieth century. The Great Depression hit the city hard, as did the manufacturing slump that came after World War II. During periods of conflict, however, industries survived and thrived through military contracts and defense manufacturing, adapting peacetime products to support war efforts. Locomotive and machine works made cannons and trench engines, while textile plants produced uniforms, parachutes, and powder charge cases. Cable companies produced flexible undersea pipelines, and weather balloon factories built radio rescue kits. Newer Paterson industries, such as Wright Aeronautical (later Curtiss-Wright), mirrored Alexander Hamilton's vision for production both in peace and war. Factories which built the engines Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindberg, Douglas Corrigan, and Richard Byrd used for pioneering acts of aviation churned out vast numbers of fighter planes, bombers, and tank engines.

A 1940s aerial image of dense neighborhoods surrounding two massive manufacturing plants along a wide railroad line, numbered "1" & "2" for identification
Curtiss-Wright's Paterson "Plant 1" expanded into former the American Locomotive Company works as "Plant 2" during WWII. In times of war and peace, the city's industries provided manufacturing vital to the nation - as anticipated by Alexander Hamilton

Paterson Museum

World War II demonstrated the greatest example of this, as the entire city's focus turned toward the war effort. Curtiss-Wright alone employed over 50,000 Patersonians, producing 77,554 aircraft engines - over half of the company's national wartime total. The city was a model of homefront mobilization; Paterson's firefighters were nationally trained civil defense instructors, anti-aircraft batteries protected the region from atop Garret Mountain, civic institutions held massive bond and fundraising drives, and countless men and women served in the armed forces as soldiers, sailors, pilots, medical personnel, engineers, and administrative staff. In recognition of this, Paterson is New Jersey's American WWII Heritage City.

Post-World War II many factories shuttered their doors, even as more workers arrived; Paterson's 20th century influx saw large numbers of black Americans during the Great Migration and immigrants from across South and Central America. The promise of a better life and economic opportunity still drew people to the city, even as its own fortunes began to suffer.

Ultimately, Paterson fell victim to economic uncertainties affecting other industrial centers - companies moved south, west, and eventually overseas in pursuit of cost-cutting, accelerated as cutting-edge facilities competed with Paterson's massive, aging plants. By the 1960s, Paterson's fortunes waned, with only a few mills still operating. In 1945 the S.U.M., the society that started it all, sold its charter and all remaining property to the City of Paterson. After 153 years, the S.U.M. had not realized its original dream of becoming a manufacturer and trader of goods. It succeeded, however, in establishing a center where countless came to seek their fortunes in the power provided by the Passaic River and the Great Falls.

President Gerald Ford stands at a podium with the presidential seal beside seated dignitaries, the 77 ft. great falls roaring behind him framed overhead by an arched black metal bridge decked in patriotic bunting & a banner reading "Paterson"
On June 6th, 1976, President Gerald Ford formally established Paterson's Historic District as a National Historic Landmark, a major step in the city's preservation & revitalization efforts

UMass Amherst Nancy Palmieri Collection

Preservation & Park Status

At the same time industries stagnated, recognition of their history increased. This was spurred by revitalization efforts, some of which threatened the city's historic and natural resources. Interstate 80's construction across Paterson in 1971 cut through neighborhoods, railroads, and the remains of the 1828 Morris Canal - other earlier plans called for demolition of much of the downtown core for urban renewal, threatening the falls, the raceway, and scores of homes and businesses.

A grass-roots group, spearheaded by Mary Ellen Kramer, wife of then-Mayor Lawrence "Pat" Kramer, began working towards re-vitalization balanced with preservation. Their efforts led to the Great Falls/S.U.M. areas to be placed on the Department of the Interior's National Register of Historic Places, the surveying and preservation of historic buildings, and attracted attention from federal entities such as the Smithsonian Institution and the National Park Service. Throughout the 1970s, the area gained more national recognition. In May of 1976 the falls and nearby Garret Mountain formally became National Natural Landmarks - in June of that same year President Gerald Ford established the Historic District as a National Landmark, and in 1977 the power and raceway system were named a National Civil and Mechanical Engineering Landmark.

These milestones supported plans to create a national park around the Great Falls to protect their natural wonder and encompass the surrounding district with the stories of mills and factories, pioneering technology, and the changing faces of the city's workers and residents. Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park was authorized on March 30th, 2009 by President Barack Obama and was signed into formal establishment as the 397th National Park Service unit on November 7th, 2011.

Tall, long brick mills with rows of windows and worn chimneys stand over smaller industrial buildings, office and civic buildings of Paterson NJ's skyline in the background
Today, Paterson looks to the future while preserving, protecting, & adaptively reusing the historic & natural resources key to its success

VIP Terry McKenna

Preserving the Past, Focusing on the Future

Today, the city's story continues. Heavy industry is mostly gone, but light manufacturing, education, filming, and tourism make up parts of Paterson's vibrant urban landscape and continue to support a diverse population. While the S.U.M.'s original vision may not have come to pass as anticipated, the city's success mirrors that of the nation: industry and innovation, developed by and supporting people from across the world who call Paterson and the United States their home.

Paterson's contributions as the first planned industrial city in the nation enabled growth, prosperity, and security in times of peace and conflict, and it continues looking to the future as an ongoing experiment, as post-industrial communities adapt to continue thriving and people recognize the importance of preserving and protecting natural and historical resources.

Last updated: January 12, 2024

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72 McBride Avenue Extension
Paterson, NJ 07501



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