Paterson, New Jersey, holds a unique place in history. It was here, in America's first planned industrial city, that the Industrial Revolution got a foothold in the New World. Centered around the Great Falls of the Passaic River, Paterson pioneered methods for harnessing water power for industrial use. In Paterson, many of the manufactories that enabled the young United States to become an economic player on the world stage, were established and promoted. In the process, Paterson experienced all the economic highs and lows that can befall an industrial center.
This area was first inhabited by the Lenni Lenape, followed by Dutch settlers in the 17th century. Fourteen Dutch families established themselves here, later dividing up their 100-acre plots of land into smaller farm units. Almost 80 years later, in 1792, the area would be transformed due to the vision of one man.
After the Revolutionary War ended, Alexander Hamilton began promoting his views on the economic needs of the new nation. He was concerned over the lack of industry in the United States; during colonial times, it was prohibited by English law. Hamilton believed that a strong industrial system was the best way to help the United States gain financial independence and become a world presence.
After Hamilton was appointed the United States' first Secretary of the Treasury, he continued to advocate for the establishment of industry in America. Toward that end he co-founded the "Society for Establishing Usefull Manufactures" (S.U.M.), a manufacturing society that would be operated by private interests, but would have the support of government. The charter for S.U.M. called for the society to both manufacture goods and trade in them as well. This was the entity that, in 1792, purchased 700 acres of land above and below the Great Falls and established the city of Paterson, named for New Jersey Governor William Paterson; Paterson was an ardent supporter of Hamilton's plans and he signed S.U.M.'s charter in November of 1791.
Paterson's early years were marred by financial and personnel difficulties. Over-speculation on the part of S.U.M.'s directors, and a temperamental civil engineer (Pierre Charles L'Enfant - designer of Washington, D.C.), hired to design the city, plagued the enterprise. Despite these problems, the first cotton mill was built shortly after the land was purchased; water power was not yet available, so the "Bull Mill" was operated by ox-power. When the first raceway was built in early 1794, the power of the river was first used, and a second cotton mill opened later that year. The town boomed during the War of 1812, and then suffered a setback after the war ended, as foreign textiles became more easily obtained.
Later, more raceways provided more extensive access to water, allowing for more mills to be built. As the years progressed, manufacturing in Paterson became more diversified - in addition to cotton and wool textiles, Paterson began building railroad locomotives, making paper, and producing rope, hemp, and even firearms. This diversification proved to be key to Paterson's success, although all these industries were affected by changing levels of supply and demand that influenced all areas of life. Opportunities for workers were further affected by influxes of immigrants from Ireland, England, France, Russia, Poland, Germany, and other parts of the world.
The height of Paterson's industrial strength came in the 1890s. Although there had been silk mills in Paterson since the mid-1800s, silk production became more dominant. By the end of the 19th century, the silk industry had earned the city its nickname, "Silk City". In 1913, Paterson became a focal point of the labor movement when silk mill workers struck for six months, demanding improved working conditions and an eight-hour workday. Although it failed, the 1913 Silk Strike focused national attention on the plight of mill workers and eventually contributed to later improvements to working conditions nationwide.
As happened with most 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. The post-World War II years would see most of the mills and factories shuttering their doors, even as more workers arrived; some were African-Americans from the South, others came from other parts of the world.
In 1945, S.U.M., the society that started it all, sold its charter and all of its remaining property to the City of Paterson. After 153 years, S.U.M. had not realized its original dream of becoming a manufacturer and trader of goods. It had succeeded, however, in establishing a center for others to come and seek their fortunes in the power provided by the Passaic River and the Great Falls. Ultimately, Paterson would fall victim to the economic uncertainties that have affected other industrial centers. By the 1960s, Paterson's fortunes had waned, with only a few cotton mills still operating. A grass-roots group, spearheaded by Mary Ellen Kramer, wife of then-Mayor Lawrence "Pat" Kramer, began working towards re-vitalizing the downtown and Great Falls sections of Paterson. 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 preservation of some of the historic buildings within the Historic District, and attracted attention from federal entities such as the Smithsonian Institution and the National Park Service. Through the 1970s, the area continued to gain more national recognition; the Great Falls were declared a National Landmark in 1976, and in 1977, the power and raceway system were named a National Civil and Mechanical Engineering Landmark.
These milestones led to plans to create a national park with the Great Falls at its center. It would not only protect this natural wonder, but it would encompass the surrounding district with its stories of mills and factories, pioneering technology, and the changing faces of Paterson's workers and residents. On November 7, 2011, after decades of work, Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park was dedicated as the 397th unit in the National Park System. Paterson's story has not ended. While the Great Falls no longer provide power to the now-silent mills, they will once again serve the city of Paterson by telling the world of the contributions and innovations that began here.
Last updated: January 28, 2023