Can an Urban Waterfall Repower Paterson?

December 3, 2010

Michelle Knapik, Environment Program Director


Paterson has an extraordinary history as the first planned industrial city and as an immigrant stronghold. The Hamilton Partnership for Paterson is a new nonprofit with a vision and plan to thread Paterson’s past success with its current and future revival, and the Great Falls once again figures prominently in the story. You may also know that the Hamilton in the Partnership’s name refers to one of our nation’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, who was also the architect, economist, and driver of Paterson’s rise as an industrial giant (click here for information about Hamilton’s “Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures”).


A team of Dodge staff and trustees recently had an opportunity to tour the Great Falls area – now the heart of the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park (as designated by President Obama on March 30, 2009). Our guides, Leonard Zax, Executive Director of the Partnership, and Bill Bolger, National Park Project Manager, brought to life a planned project called “the Mill Mile.” The Mill Mile will involve “a series of walking tours and educational materials that will be an integral part of America’s newest National Park. Mill Mile will engage Paterson residents and visitors through history, art, literature, and environmental education.”


Our tour started at the Paterson Museum, which provides tributes to Paterson’s industry pioneers and visionaries.


We then walked up the block to the top of the falls – here the original 1913 hydroelectric power plant, back in operation since the 80’s, is generating clean energy for more than 11,000 homes, with strategies in development for ways to boost energy production. In Hamilton’s time, Paterson was the first urban center to harness clean hydro power through its “raceway system” that diverted water from the falls to power the mills. History buffs will tell you that Paterson was known as Silk City, and equally well known for operations related to early steam locomotive production, gun production (Colt Revolver), and submarine and airplane engine production.





Paterson also offers surprising “wilds” amidst its industrial relics. The area around the Falls provides exquisite vistas and anyone with a penchant for archeology will appreciate the imposing basalt rock substrate that underlies and surrounds the falls.



Unlike the eroding rock at Niagara Falls, this glacial remnant is not in retreat mode.  I only know this because Bill Bolger went way beyond NPS project manager role to act as naturalist, environmental and educational interpreter, historian, archeologist, and artist during our tour!  The National Park is comprised of 35 acres along the Passaic River and the Falls, and I have no doubt that there is inspired leadership behind the NPS planning process. The land use and educational programming promises to be groundbreaking – and to serve as a model for urban parks across the country. Imagine the trail system that will retrace and reclaim historical events such as the area at the top of the Falls where George Washington picnicked with dignitaries, then wind around to Hinchliffe Stadium, which was home to the New York Black Yankees and New York Cubans of the Negro Baseball League.


Land around the Falls is considered prime real estate, and Leonard tells us that it is attracting high quality and high integrity developers. In the name of sustainable redevelopment, and as a way to right the industrial pollution wrongs of the past, stakeholders are looking for ways that green industry can be a part of Paterson’s future, along with eco, cultural and heritage tourism.  Picture the raceway system with water rushing over the latest micro-hydro power technologies. Mix this with historic preservation plans and rehab projects that keep reuse in mind, consider new opportunities for brownfield development, preserve the ruins of our industrial history, and create space for interpretive public art.



Our walk through town and through history was punctuated by our awe of the engineering and design innovations of the time: the early use of renewable energy, and the diversity of the people past and present, which is part of Paterson’s strength. The key to success will be revitalization efforts that strategically integrate opportunities related to the economy, the environment, and equity/fairness. A positive sign in this regard is the news that Paterson recently enrolled in the Sustainable Jersey program. In addition, many revitalization efforts are being led by strong nonprofits. Dodge is encourage by the work of some key players including City Green (community and school gardening and urban farming), the New Jersey Community Development Corporation (see efforts related to the Great Falls Youth Corps and the NEA (Arts & Creative Revitalization Initiative), Paterson Habitat for Humanity (green arts & community initiative), the Paterson Education Fund (Learn and Serve Environmental Science Program), the Passaic River Coalition (PRC leads on land trust matters in Paterson), and now the Hamilton Partnership for Paterson.  The full revitalization of Paterson will take some time, and stakeholders will need to collaborate and leverage all available public and private resources, but the Great Falls is already powering hope, action and a good deal of momentum toward a sustainable, thriving Paterson.

What’s your favorite historical fact about Paterson? And what is your vision of Paterson’s tomorrow?