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Silk City - Paterson, New Jersey
The Industrial Revolution in North Jersey

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January 17, 2018
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The Industrial Revolution in Northern New Jersey

Passaic Falls at Paterson, Edison Film, July 1896 (RealMedia)

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The Great Falls in Paterson, New Jersey
The cradle of the industrial revolution in America: Paterson, New Jersey's Great Falls, 77 feet tall and 280 feet wide.

Paterson was founded in 1791 by the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures (S.U.M.), a group championed by statesman Alexander Hamilton.
  The City of Paterson is located in Northeastern New Jersey near waterfalls on the Passaic River. It was incorporated as a town in 1831.

The settlement was named for governor of New Jersey and signer of the United States Constitution, William Paterson (1746-1806). Alexander Hamilton is sometimes called the "Founder of Paterson" because of his vision in July of 1778. On route to Paramus, General George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, his aide-de-camp Colonel James McHenry, and Colonel Alexander Hamilton stopped at what was then called the Totowa Falls. Picnicking near the Falls, Hamilton noticed the natural beauty and power of the "Great Falls".

Later when Alexander Hamilton was Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, he had but one place in mind for his "New National Manufactory". Hamilton's
Alexander Hamilton statue near the Great Falls in Paterson, New Jersey
Alexander Hamilton statue overlooking the Great Falls in Paterson, New Jersey
"Report on Manufactures", delivered to congress in 1790, stressed the importance of a domestic manufacturing capability. Soon after, the New Jersey legislature passed a law establishing the charter of S.U.M., "The Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures". Hamilton was chief adviser and most active volunteer for the society.

The project was off to a rocky start as it coincided with the Panic of 1791-1792. The first mill built was idled in 1796 and destroyed by fire in 1807.

The great power of the waterfalls eventually drove Paterson to become one of the first industrial centers in the United States. Engineers, entrepreneurs, artisans and inventors were drawn to this new technology center.

Phoenix Mill on Van Houten Street in the Historic District in Paterson, New Jersey
The Phoenix Mill (left, 1816), the earliest existing textile mill in the Historic District, Van Houten Street in Paterson New Jersey.
French trained architect, engineer and city planner Pierre L'Enfant, who drew the plans for Washington, D.C., was the first general superintendent for the S.U.M. project. He proposed to harness power from the falls by a channel through the rock and an aqueduct. The society directors felt that L'Enfant was taking too long and was over budget. He was replaced by Peter Colt, who got the water flowing for the new factories in 1794. Colt used a less complicated plan than L'Enfant based on a reservoir system. Eventually Colt's scheme developed problems and a system nearer L'Enfant's original plan was used after 1846.
Thomas Alva Edison shown with his invention, the electric incandescent light.
Thomas Alva Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park, was involved in building one of the world's first hydroelectric plants in Paterson, New Jersey at the Great Falls.


In 1910, S.U.M. convinced the mill owers to switch to electricity. Thomas Edison's Electric Company drew up plans for a 4849 kilowatt hydroelectric facility which operated from 1914 until 1969. In 1984, the plant was restored with the replacement of three of the four turbines. In 1986 the plant was restarted and now generates 11,000 kilowatts per hour, enough electricity for 11,000 homes. Recently the plant produced nearly $400,000 worth of electricity in four months which it sold to Public Service Electric and Gas*. The Great Falls again powers Paterson and the surrounding area today over 223 years since Alexander Hamilton's "picnic".Industry got underway in the Paterson area as a talented machinist named John Clark began operations followed by John Parke. Thomas Rogers started competing against British locomotive manufacturers in 1835. Rogers' firm grew into the leading locomotive manufacturer in the United States by 1854.

Inventor John Philip Holland emigrated from Ireland to Paterson in 1873. His idea of an underwater boat was originally rejected by the United States Navy. Privately financed by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Holland built his submarine boat at an Albany Street ironworks in New York City. The submarine was then moved to J.C. Todd's machine shop in Paterson where it was fitted with the newly patented petroleum engine. In June of 1878, the Holland I was launched from Listers Boathouse above the Great Falls into the Passaic River.

By 1870, nearly fifty percent of the silk made in the United States was produced in Paterson. In the early part of the twentieth century, the silk mills of Paterson fell victim to labor strife and never recovered.

Silk City's Lambert Castle is located near ther Clifton / Paterson border
Silk City's Lambert Castle (1893) in Clifton near the Paterson city border is undergoing extensive restoration.

An example of the affluence created by Paterson's silk industry can be found just over the city border in Garret Mountain Reservation. Catholina Lambert migrated from England in 1834 and by 1890 was one of the largest mill owners in Paterson.

Lambert built his "castle" in 1892 to display his collection of European and American art. Today, the Passaic County Historical Society and the Parks Commission is housed there.

Paterson industries provided the sail cloth for Yankee Clipper ships, the revolvers and firearms which tamed the "wild west", locomotives that pulled the freight that built a nation, and silk products which created a golden age for the "Silk City".

The history of Paterson and the industrial revolution in America is preserved today as the Great Falls National Historic Landmark.

Paterson Art Walk 2013

A part of the Great Falls Historic District is dedicated to art studios, performane areas and galleries. On My 25, 2013, an open house of sorts was held inviting visitors into the studios in a historic mill where jute was made into rigging for sailing ships. We took this opportunity to not only view the artworks, but to photograph the 19th century buildings that were part of the Dolphin Jute mills 

Dolphin Jute mills area
Dolphin Mill Complex in the Great Falls historic District. More pictures

Pictures from the Paterson Art Walk 2013





Related Links:
Art Factory - "Creative Space for Professional Artists"
Great Falls brochure (PDF) - Mp and visitor guide for the Great Falls Historic District

Working in Paterson:Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting - The documentary materials presented in this online collection explore how this industrial heritage expresses itself in Paterson today: in its work sites, work processes, and memories of workers. The online presentation also includes interpretive essays exploring such topics as work in the African-American community, a distinctive food tradition (the Hot Texas Wiener), the ethnography of a single work place (Watson Machine International), business life along a single street in Paterson (21st Avenue), and narratives told by retired workers.
Passaic Falls at Paterson, Edison Film, July 1896 - 19 second film of the Great Falls in Paterson, New Jersey (RealMedia)
Stereoscopic views of Paterson and Passaic Falls areas - Views of Paterson and Passaic Falls, including general and street views, views of the falls, bridges, waterhouse, mills, aqueduct, and ice. 1858?-1875?
1835 Map of Paterson, New Jersey
Search the rt23.com Directory for the Museums and Historical Sites
Paterson Friends of the Great Falls


  • Dateline Journal, Paterson's Legacy Borne by Industrial Vision, Vincent Waraske, April 8, 1992
  • Great Falls Visitor Center
  • Funk and Wagnalls New Encylcopedia, Vol. 20, 1980
  • * The Record, April 24, 2001, p L-1
Untitled Document

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