A majestic 77-foot waterfall in the heart of a working-class New Jersey city that inspired generations of newcomers to America, fueled the Industrial Revolution and was featured in everything from a William Carlos Williams poem to an episode of “The Sopranos,” became the nation’s newest national park recently.
The Great Falls in downtown Paterson was given the national-park designation in a ceremony attended by New Jersey officials, local schoolchildren, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the head of the National Park Service.
Paterson, the third-largest city in New Jersey, was once a booming beacon of industry and later fell on hard times.
The waterfall is second only to Niagara Falls in water volume east of the Mississippi River. More than 2 billion gallons of water a day pass over its summit to the swirling Passaic River below.
Considered the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution, the Great Falls once generated power that ran mills producing silk — Paterson is still known as ‘Silk City’ — locomotives, aircraft engines and guns.
“This is a day where we honor people who were not afraid to get their hands dirty, to make the real American revolution happen — it happened right here in the blocks that surround us where we stand today,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., a Paterson native who lobbied for years for the national park designation. “This is the only national park in the whole country — this is our Yellowstone — the only park where you join the aesthetic with the historic American revolution in industry.”
Parks department officials echoed those words, pointing out that many national historic sites are small and several are in urban areas, but the Great Falls site has a rare combination of natural beauty and historical significance.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who, like Pascrell, was born and raised in Paterson, spoke passionately of the historic designation recognizing the contributions of the immigrant workers, like his forbearers, who helped build America.
Lautenberg, poking fun at being the oldest member of the U.S. Senate at age 87, joked that he was with Alexander Hamilton in 1778 when he looked out at the falls and envisioned America harnessing its water to become a great industrial power.
Years later, as the country’s first treasury secretary, Hamilton selected the site to become the nation’s first planned industrial city.
“The Great Falls inspired Alexander Hamilton — my buddy — 200 years ago, and we’re going to make them a source of inspiration again,” Lautenberg said.
The falls once provided electrical power to a network of mills and factories that fueled many industries, from textiles to the Rogers Locomotive Works and the place where the first Colt .45 revolvers were manufactured.
The city also is rich in labor history, and was the site of the 1913 Paterson silk strike.
The area was named a National Historic District in 1976, but it has taken decades to achieve national park status.
The designation was approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama in March 2009, making the 35-acre site eligible for federal funds.
Exactly how much the state will get to run the park has yet to be determined.
The first step is to get community input, according to parks officials, who said that outreach will be in English, Spanish, Bengali and Arabic — all spoken in the communities that make up Paterson’s diverse population.
Darren Boch of the National Park Service, a Paterson native who has been named the new park’s first superintendent, said an initial assessment will be made to determine how best to design the park to be “an interpretive experience” consistent with other national parks.
Paterson officials said they hope the official designation as a national park will help revitalize the city and make it a tourist destination.
Calling the site “the spiritual home of the American dream,” New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez said it was important to recognize the contributions of unnamed immigrant workers who helped make America an industrial powerhouse.
“No other site in the nation more richly represents the remarkable transformation of our society, based in slavery, into a modern, global economy based in freedom, than the Paterson Great Falls National Park,” he said.