Paterson, N.J.

Escapes: Paterson, N.J.'s Great Falls is an urban oasis with depth

Great Falls National Historical Park was established in March 2009.
Great Falls National Historical Park was established in March 2009. "People have been coming here since the 16th century," says the director of the Paterson Museum. (Andrea Sachs/the Washington Post)
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By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 6, 2010

Behind a chain-link fence, Great Falls tumbles over jagged rocks, its liquid curtain dropping 77 feet. Above, ducks float in a placid pool. A wee rainbow arcs through the mist. It's a sylvan setting, one befitting a honeymoon or meditative retreat, until . . . honk, honk, bleat, honk. Rush hour traffic ahead. Nature break over. Yo, taxi.

Unlike cascades tucked deep in a forest or along a coastal trail, the Jersey waterfall is smack inside Paterson, a boisterous city of 150,000 less than 15 miles from Manhattan. For outdoor purists, its citified location might be hard on the eyes and ears. But for others, including the federal government, which in March 2009 designated the attraction a national park, the convergence of raw nature and industrial urbanity gives the falls added depth.

"It's not some Yellowstone," said Josh Castano, a specialist with the city's Historic Preservation Commission. "It's about the relationship between man and nature, society and a national resource, and how we interact with it and use it for industry."

There are two ways to approach the falls, theoretically speaking. (Logistically, the main entrance is on McBride Avenue, near the Alexander Hamilton statue, though you can also access it from the opposite side, by Hinchliffe Stadium, a former Negro Leagues ballpark.) One is simple waterfall-viewing: Follow the paved path to the pedestrian bridge, then meander down to an outlook for a photo op. While walking the circumference, match what you see with what you've learned (280 feet wide, 2 billion gallons of water flow per day). Back in the parking lot, check the waterfall off your life list (based on volume, it places second after Niagara Falls). Then continue with your day.

"People have been coming here since the 16th century," said Giacomo De Stefano, director of the Paterson Museum, in the Great Falls National Historic Landmark district. "This was Niagara before they knew Niagara existed."

The other angle is to delve into the city's history (economic, not geologic), which will illuminate the waterfall's other sides. "Paterson does have national significance," said De Stefano. "It's the first planned industrial city in the United States."

Hamilton first visited Paterson as aide de camp to George Washington and returned after the Revolutionary War as secretary of the Treasury. His purpose: to test his idea about turning the fledging country into an industrial behemoth. (By contrast, his adversaries promoted an agrarian nation.) Part of his Great Experiment involved harnessing the water's power and using it to run mills and factories. His grand plan was never realized (ditto for Pierre L'Enfant's designs for the city and its aqua system), but that did not stop Paterson from excelling in certain industries.

Housed in a restored locomotive shop, the Paterson Museum illustrates hometown achievements with displays so impressive, I frequently asked De Stefano if they were replicas. His answer was always no; I stopped asking. The museum, for example, owns the first two submersibles built by John Philip Holland, the Father of the Modern Submarine, and 30 of the rare Colt Paterson firearms (1837-42), the third-largest collection in the world. A series of silk-making machines, clunky yet colorful with spools of thread, represent Paterson's glory moment in the 19th century as Silk City.

Mulberry trees and silk-producing cocoons never took in the Jersey clime, but that did not stop industrialists from amassing astounding wealth. The proof sits on the foothills of Garret Mountain.

In the late 1800s, tycoon Catholina Lambert constructed a castle modeled after the royal domiciles he had passed as a poor young millworker in England. The structure lords over the town (and interstate), its 70-foot tower visible from many vantage points. The Passaic County Historical Society now runs the mansion and invites guests to wander the Gilded Age rooms, many filled with original furnishings. In 1916, under financial pressure, Lambert had to sell his Louvre-caliber art collection, but the organization covered the walls with pieces that reflect his refined taste, plus countless images of Great Falls.

"You can never have enough waterfall pictures," said director Alison Faubert. The castle showcases about 35 works depicting the watery scene, with about 200 stashed in boxes.

No matter how great the artist, however, a picture cosseted by a frame lacks a certain thrill. For that, you need to circle back to the park.

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