When it comes to our founding fathers, I am a (huge!) Thomas Jefferson fan. Really. It is very possible for me to go on (and on) about the variety of his talents and the numerous contributions he made to this country. However, I must give credit where it is due and recognize Alexander Hamilton for the foresight he had in 1778 when he stood across from the Great Falls in Paterson, NJ and understood their potential role in the industrial opportunities of our developing country. Even when many of his contemporaries (including Jefferson) insisted that the economy of the country be built by agricultural means, Hamilton felt that manufacturing was a better direction to take. He was a driving force behind the development of the land surrounding the falls (named after New Jersey’s governor at the time, William Paterson) which became our country’s first industrial city.
A lot has happened in the city of Paterson since Hamilton worked his magic there. Visitors to the Great Falls Historic District Cultural Center, located across the street from the falls, can learn about how Paterson earned it’s internationally known nickname of Silk City, how it fared during the Great Depression, its ties to the motion picture and locomotive industries, how many residents from Paterson became members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, the impact of the great fires, droughts, and flood cycles that have come through the city, and the way the city and its hydroelectricity (a green energy source) continue to thrive today. Glen, the guide the day my parents and I visited, provided us with many insights he gained while growing up in Paterson, watching history happen first hand. At the visitor center, you can pick up literature about the falls and other attractions in the surrounding area as well as find art from local artists on display and available for purchase.
On this early spring day when only a few trees began to bud, I stood in the same place that Hamilton had over two hundred years ago to experience the grandeur of the Great Falls myself. From the impressive height of over 70 feet, water rushes with turbulent force and makes its way, crashing along basalt rocks, flowing into the Passaic River. Forgetting for a moment how this water is responsible for providing power or its role in history, I found myself lost in the beautiful way the strong and graceful water danced.
While standing across from the falls (under the watchful eye of a statue of Hamilton), we met a number of people who also came to enjoy their splendor. Among the people we met were Harold Jackson, a Paterson native, and his uncle, Robert Denson. Jackson, also known as DJ Smooth, is a local DJ and photographer. Jackson shared with me that though he lives so close to the falls, he doesn’t often take the time to really appreciate them. So this day, he took his camera and his uncle and decided to be a tourist, right in his hometown. While Jackson was taking pictures of the falls (and seeking photography advice from my dad), his uncle told me a little bit of what it is like to live in Paterson. Originally from Georgia, Denson is no stranger to hot weather, but he doesn’t mind the heat in Paterson since there is a special source of relief – the falls. He told me that, “In the summertime, when it’s really hot, a lot of people walk over the falls to escape the heat. It’s like air conditioning out here.”
Though the heat wasn’t unbearable at all that day, we still decided to check out what Denson was talking about. We walked around to stand above the falls and appreciate them from a different view. (In the pictures from our first view, on the platform next to Hamilton’s statue, you can see the bridge over the falls.) Up on the bridge, the spray from the water below reached high above where we stood and in certain spots, it felt as if we were caught in a rainstorm. I could see how on a very hot day, this would be the ideal place to go and find relief from the heat. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was that the combination of the sunny afternoon and the fine mist in the air would create a beautiful rainbow. While we stood on the bridge, with the falls rushing by below our feet, we were also standing over the rainbow! This fictional place we learned about many years ago from the song that Judy Garland sang in The Wizard of Oz, became very real. And though your troubles might not all “melt like lemon drops” you may find, like Hamilton and many others did, that the Great Falls in Paterson, NJ is a place where “the dreams that you dare to dream, really do come true.”
The Jersey Girl
Note: In 1976 the Great Falls area was declared a National Landmark District. In 2004 the Great Falls Historic District was declared a NJ state park. Most recently, in 2009 President Obama signed the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park Act, designating the land as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. You can visit the falls year round, but it is recommended that you visit during the day, while it is light out. There are plenty of picnic tables around the falls where you can eat lunch, chat with friends, or just sit back and enjoy the majestic view for a while.
Sources and additional information:
Great Falls Historic District Cultural Center, 973-279-9587, www.patersonnj.gov
History Walks in New Jersey, by L. Rosenfeld and M. Harrison