Paterson Great Falls

Paterson, New Jersey, about 15 miles west of New York City, is the site of the spectacular natural feature called the Great Falls. 77 feet high and almost the length of a football field, this series of waterfalls along the Passaic River set the city of Paterson on its course in history. The hydroelectric power generated by the falls allowed the city to become an industrial powerhouse and earn the moniker “Silk City”. In the 19th century and early 20th, Paterson had over 100 factories employing thousands of laborers making and processing silk, cotton, paper, and even firearms. Many, if not all, of those jobs are now gone, and this city of 145,000 has had to reinvent itself like so many other formerly post-industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest.

Paterson Great Falls Bridge

Great Falls Bridge in background and S.U.M. Hydroelectric plant in foreground

On a recent trip home to New Jersey I visited this often overlooked city to see the falls and toured the Great Falls National Historic Park, which became a National Historic Landmark in 2009.

Paterson Great Falls NHP

NPS sign

If you go

Park in the Haines Overlook parking lot on McBridge Avenue. There you have two hours of free parking, which should be enough time to take in the falls and walk around the historic district. The day I was there, a 15 year old National Park Service junior volunteer offered his assistance and gave a quick overview of the site and told me where to go to take the best pictures. I asked him how he got his position with NPS. He said that he wanted to be a Park Ranger and this was the best route for that. I didn’t even know NPS had the volunteer program but this kid had a good plan under his belt.

At the overlook is a statue of Alexander Hamilton, who pushed through the idea of creating a planned industrial city at Paterson.

Haines Overlook Great Falls Paterson

Haines Overlook with Alexander Hamilton statute

At the overlook, you get the best overall view of the scale of the falls and the S.U.M. Hydroelectric Plan, but to really get up close to the water, you’ll need to walk over the footbridges that spanning the falls themselves.

Paterson Great Falls waterfall

Great Falls view

The falls were really loud even during a relatively dry period; after a big rain they really get loud and you can feel the spray of the water on your face as you peer down from the bridge.

Paterson Great Falls flow

Paterson Great Falls flow even during a period with little rain

After you see the falls, stop at the Visitors Center on the corner of Spruce Street and McBridge and check out the little gift shop. Then take a walk down Spruce, where you can see some of the old factories that have been re-purposed into modern buildings. On the right you’ll see a Burger King occupying the building from the 1800s.

Paterson NJ adaptive reuse factory

Paterson Silk Machinery Exchange on Spruce Street

 

Paterson Great Falls factory

Factory in shadows, Spruce Street

Afterwards if you want to take a quick look at downtown I suggest driving along Market Street, the heart of the city. I was in a rush that day and didn’t have time to walk around, but the city was bustling and the sidewalks were crowded.

Paterson doesn’t have the best reputation due to its crime rate, but its strategic location not far from New York City and Newark and its population of enterprising immigrants and children of immigrants give it a promising future.

Next time I visit Paterson, I’ll go up to Garrett Mountain to get an outstanding view of the city of Paterson and the surrounding region.

 

Kevin is based in Washington, DC and writes about his travel adventures in the Mid-Atlantic region and around the world. Through entertaining writing and eye-catching photography, he aims to provide readers with useful information as they plan their next trips.

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