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Keeping the 'great' in Paterson's Great Falls
1/26/2017 Volume XLVII, No. 4

One of New Jersey’s most iconic landmarks – and a popular visitor attraction – is the Great Falls of Paterson, whose roaring waters are framed by an arched iron bridge and historic redbrick mills linked to founding father Alexander Hamilton.

So astonishment and dismay erupted in late 2015 when the city’s Planning Board approved a 156-unit apartment complex on a prominent ridge overlooking the falls and historic district. Why would a city trying to promote tourism jeopardize its greatest scenic asset?

Fortunately, beauty and common sense prevailed and the spectacular view is now saved!

Earlier this month, the New Jersey Green Acres Program purchased the threatened 8.5-acre site. The land, rising 100 feet above the Passaic River, will now support access to Paterson Great Falls National Historic Park. New amenities will include an expanded trail system, historic interpretation and parking.

"The site offers the possibility of creating a sequence of overlooks, landscapes, pathways and features that bring together the richness of a spectacular natural history and ecology; an aspect of our industrial and Native American heritage, and current day community and tourist interests, including recreation, interaction and events," said Paterson Mayor Jose "Joey" Torres.

"This new parkland will help our national park, our city, our county and our state,” said Leonard Zax, president of the Hamilton Partnership for Paterson, a citizens group that advocated for preserving the view. “When we work together and fight for the common good, nothing can stop us."

The 77-foot falls - New Jersey’s largest and the nation’s second most powerful only to Niagara Falls -are the centerpiece of the historic park. It was because of these mighty falls that Paterson was founded as America’s first planned industrial city.

Alexander Hamilton first visited the site in 1778, in the midst of the Revolutionary War – on a picnic with George Washington and General Lafayette - and was impressed by the potential of the falls to power industry.

After the war, Hamilton became the first U.S. Treasury Secretary and helped found the Society for the Establishment of Useful Manufactures, a private corporation chartered to fulfill his industrial vision. The Society established the city of Paterson in 1792, naming it after New Jersey Governor William Paterson, a signer of the Constitution.

Paterson became renowned as the “Silk City” as its water-powered mills along the Passaic River produced silk and cotton textiles, and its factories made railroad locomotives and guns, including the first Colt .45 pistols.

Because of its storied history, the falls and surrounding industrial area were targeted for historic preservation 50 years ago. The area was named a National Natural Landmark in 1967, a National Historic Landmark District in 1976, and a National Historic Park in 2009. Over 200,000 people visited the park last year.

"Preserving this property is a win for New Jersey for both ecological and historic reasons," said Rich Boornazian, the state’s Assistant Commissioner of Natural and Historic Resources. "New Jerseyans and visitors to our state will now have additional space to see this geologic marvel and to further learn how it inspired leaders to build Paterson and a new industrial foundation for a young nation."

In addition to the newly-preserved land, Paterson is also getting recognition. Late 2016 saw the release of the feature film “Paterson,” filmed in the city with scenes of the Great Falls. The movie’s main character is a bus driver and secret poet (played by Adam Driver), who takes pride in his city’s history and culture. The film won a Cannes Film Festival “Palm Dog” award for best performance by a canine – Marvin, the bus driver’s dog, who turns out to be an important character.

And last summer, the National Park Service announced a proposal for a Paterson Great Falls visitor center named for Hamilton. The glass-enclosed Alexander Hamilton Center would be built along the lower level of the Passaic River, facing the Great Falls. And, of course, the city’s founder is already commemorated in the hit Broadway hip-hop musical “Hamilton.”

Kudos to the Green Acres Program and its local partners for recognizing the importance of protecting Paterson’s Great Falls. Preserving the unique beauty of the falls and historic area for all to enjoy will boost the long-term success of the national historic park … and Paterson’s downtown revitalization.

To learn more about Great Falls National Historic Park, go to the National Park Service website at www.nps.gov/pagr/index.htm or visit the Hamilton Partnership for Paterson website at http://www.hamiltonpartnership.org. The Hamilton Partnership is now making plans to celebrate Paterson’s 225th anniversary this coming Fourth of July.

And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

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