The Great Paterson Falls, sometimes referred to as New Jersey’s Niagara, is one of the state’s most mesmerizing natural landmarks. From its early use by the Lenape to its current status as a national historic park, this site has quite a story to tell. It even appears in The Sopranos. Most notably the Falls led to the development of Paterson and got the ball rolling for industry within the United States. This park definitely deserves a spot on your Garden State Bucket List. Keep reading for a brief history of the Paterson Great Falls and how to visit this national historic park in Passaic County, New Jersey.
History of the Paterson Falls
The Paterson Falls are 77 feet high and 300 feet wide and on average dump almost two billion gallons of water a day. This natural beauty formed roughly 13,000 years ago during the end of the last ice age and is a basaltic ridge of the Watchung Mountains. The Lenape lived around the area for generations and the Dutch later populated the region in the late 17th century.
Photo Credit: Montclair History Center
In 1778, Alexander Hamilton alongside George Washington and Marquis de Lafayette, visited Paterson Falls. Hamilton was so impressed that he later selected it as the location for the nation‘s first planned industrial city. In 1791 when Hamilton established the city of Paterson, there were only about a dozen homes in the area, a staggering number in comparison to the almost 160,000 residents of the city today. That same year he chartered the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures (S.U.M.) to achieve his dream of an industrial city.
Hamilton commissioned Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the same man who designed Washington D.C., to design a system of canals to supply the power for the watermills in the area. In 1812 the Falls became the site of the first continuous roll paper mill in the state. The use of the Falls for industry helped propel Paterson forward and earned it the nickname the “Silk City”.
S.U.M. continued using the Falls until 1945 and the site fell into disuse. In 1967, it became a National Natural Landmark and in 1971, concerned citizens created the Great Falls Preservation and Development Corporation to restore and redevelop the area. In 2007, the state announced plans for the Great Falls State Park at the waterfall which were superseded by the development of the Great Falls National Historical Park. The landmark gets roughly 300,000 visitors.
Located at 72 McBridge Avenue Extension in Paterson, the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park is open year-round. Entry to the park is free and can be done on foot or by car, although parking can be limited.
The Park Service offers Public Walking Tours every Wednesday through Saturday at 2PM. Join the guides for a 45 to 60-minute, one-mile tour to learn all about the natural and cultural diversity of the area that helped fuel the economic and social growth of our nation. For those unable to visit during those times, self-guided tours are available. The Mill Mile self-guided tour brochure can be found here.
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Although the bridge crossing over the falls is under construction and cannot be crossed, there are still plenty of spots to get a glimpse. In addition to 72 McBridge Avenue Extension, visitors can enter the Mary Kramer Park located at 150 Maple Street and find a variety of vantage points for viewing the falls.