Virtual Ranger Talks

A park ranger films his colleague as she gives a virtual talk at a railing above a lower outdoor amphitheater & a brick hydroelectric power plant


Virtual Ranger Talks

Listen to one of our Virtual Ranger Talks to explore additional stories about interesting individuals and events in Paterson's history:
Burnt down buildings and debris lay in the city's streets.
View of the city a day after the 1902 fire was put out.

Paterson Museum

The Great Paterson Fire and Flood of 1902

As the first planned industrial city in the nation, Paterson, New Jersey was a great place to find work and call it home. Even in its early days, the city was highly populated with a dense urban core of buildings. With around 105,000 residents in 1900, it was obvious the city was growing. The commercial section of the city was well operated with small businesses, the post office, county courthouse, and banks. The industrial area was packed with mills, manufacturing products such as textiles, locomotives, machinery, and hundreds of other products. From its establishment in 1792, Paterson had quickly grown to become an industrial hub of the nation.

The Great Fire of 1902 ripped through all of this. On midnight of February 9th, 1902, a fire started on Van Houten Street in Paterson's electric streetcar barn. The fire quickly spread and raged on throughout the early morning hours, making its way through the commercial district and burning down banks, the Danforth Library, apartment buildings, and several office buildings. The fire the spread to the industrial area of Paterson, burning down several silk mills.

At the time, for most fires a bucket brigade was the way to go. Firemen would also try to prevent a fire from spreading to nearby buildings by climbing ladders and extinguishing embers before they could start a new fire. Trucks named "hook and ladders" for the equipment they carried were utilized, while hoses often came separately with pumper trucks - orignally, manual pumpers and later steam pump engines. Fires were such a threat that the law required houses to be equipped with water buckets to serve for the bucket brigade. These responses were put to the test as the 1902 conflagration raged through the city.

Once extinguished, the fire left the city in a vulnerable place. About 250 families were displaced from their homes, and over 400 buildings were reduced to ash. Businesses had to start over with nothing, and industry in Paterson came to a halt. Mill owners lost their income, while workers lost their livelihood. The fire came as Paterson was making a wider name for itself as a major industrial center, and the recovery would take great effort.

Ranger Video Series - The Paterson Fire of 1902
City streets and buildings falling apart, due to massive amounts of water.
City streets and buildings falling apart, due to massive amount of flood water.

Paterson Museum

Just as the smoke started to clear, the winter season brought ice storms and heavy rainfall. On Friday, February 28th, the Passaic River quickly rose from the massive runoff and ice from upstream. This caused the dam in Whippany to burst, releasing further floodwaters. Shortly after the dam broke the streets of Paterson were filled with water.

The city had just begun to get its bearings after the fire, only for neighborhoods to have to fight to keep what was left of their homes and businesses safe from oncoming waters. Debris floated through streets, piling up and preventing water from receding. Large chemical vats inside Paterson's textile dye houses were submerged, adding a riot of poisonous color to the flood waters. Families that had escaped the fire were forced to evacuate once again. Some said it was as though nature itself was trying to destroy the city.

However, this did not stop Patersonians. Building up from the bottom, they returned to the city’s roots, reinjecting life into the heart of one of the first sites in America's industrial revolution. Within a year, the city and its residents were back on their feet, despite another challenging flood in October of 1903. Paterson overcame two back to back devastating events and came out stronger - neither fire nor flood could take down the resilient, ambitious city of Paterson.

Ranger Video Series - The Paterson Flood of 1902

Corbett, Glenn P. The Great Paterson Fire of 1902: The Story of New Jersey's Biggest Blaze. 2nd ed., vol. 1 1, G.P. Corbett, 2002.

Drawing of Sam Patch stand one of his many ladder, platform creations built for his jump.
Sam Patch getting ready for a jump.

Public Domain

Sam Patch: The Jersey Jumper

Discover the story of Sam Patch, the man known as the Jersey Jumper, the Daring Yankee, and the Yankee Leaper. Rising quickly to fame after jumping off the Great Falls, landing in the Passaic River below unharmed. In his short but stunning career, he challenged himself with ever-more daring leaps, including becoming the first person to jump off Niagara Falls without a barrel... and live. In this entry of the Ranger Video Series, learn more about wild and weird life of Sam Patch.

Ranger Video Series - The Story of Sam Patch

Last updated: January 12, 2024

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