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Paterson: History

Early Industrial Development

It all started with the falls—at the end of the last Ice Age about 13,000 years ago, the retreating glaciers left a moraine in the path of the Passaic River. After initially being dammed into a glacial lake, the river managed to escape and began to carve a new route, deepening its canyon through the basalt and ultimately creating the 77-foot Great Falls. It took about 3,000 years for the area to be settled by a nomadic group of hunter-gatherers.

The Lenni-Lenape Indian people were the original inhabitants of the Paterson area. Drawn by ample opportunities for hunting, the Lenape also began to dabble in small-scale agriculture. In the 1620s, Dutch missionaries and trappers began to settle near the Great Falls on the Passaic River, intrigued by a description given by friendly Indians. Property disputes between the Dutch and the Lenape people followed, while hunting, trapping and trading of animal pelts began to deplete the formerly rich regional supplies. Exposure to previously unknown European illnesses took a toll on the Lenape, curtailing the tribe's ability to stem further encroachment by the new settlers. In 1679, the Dutch obtained the first tract of land and began farming what is now the site of the city of Paterson. The settlement stayed small for more than a century but served as a tourist attraction. During the American Revolution, visitors such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Marquis de Lafayette stopped to have lunch at the majestic, 77-foot-high Great Falls.

In 1790, William Paterson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was elected governor of New Jersey. The next year, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, helped form the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures (S.U.M) with the power of the Great Falls of Paterson in mind. He wanted to lessen the dependence of the United States on imported products and harness the falls in the manufacture of domestic goods. Hamilton proposed to the U.S. Congress that an industrial district be set up at the site of present-day Paterson. When Congress proved uninterested, he arranged private support for what became America's first planned industrial city, named after the state governor.

In New Jersey, the state legislature voted that the S.U.M. would ever after be exempted from county and township taxes and gave it the right to hold property, improve rivers, build canals, and raise $100,000 through the use of a lottery. The S.U.M., which continued to operate until after World War II, located its plant at the Great Falls of the Passaic River.

Early Labor Problems

Major Pierre l'Enfant, who is best known for later designing the layout of Washington, D.C., was hired to build a system of raceways in Paterson that would direct water to run and operate the mills. In 1794, the initial raceway was completed and water was brought to the first mill, which produced calico goods. This laid the foundation for a substantial textile industry that has flourished into the present.

The city grew out of the S.U.M.'s 700 acres above and below the Great Falls on the Passaic, and its first citizens were primarily workers at the local factories. In the first part of the 1800s, the town continued to grow as an industrial center. If one industry failed, it was replaced by another. By 1825 Paterson had become known as the "Cotton Town of the United States." Reportedly, oxen provided power for the first cotton spinning at a Paterson mill.

America's first factory strike took place in 1828 when Paterson cotton workers quit their looms to protest a change in the lunch hour. The mill owners had decided that it would be better for the child workers if the midday meal took place at one o'clock rather than at noon, thus making a more equal division in the workday. Employees surprised management by demanding the reduction of working hours from 13.5 to 12. Other local workers, including carpenters, masons, and mechanics working in the city, also walked out. This was the first recorded instance of a sympathy strike in the United States. The workers finally lost the strike, but it made a strong impression on the community. Afterward, the owners restored the noon lunch hour.

Paterson became more accessible in 1831 with the opening of the Morris Canal, which was dug through the coal fields of Pennsylvania. A year later the railroad steamed into Paterson, further stimulating the town's development. In 1836 gun-maker Samuel Colt opened the Patent Arms Company and began the manufacture of Colt repeating revolvers. In 1837, a machine shop owned by John Clark produced one of the earliest American locomotives, the Sandusky, which was modeled after an imported English model. That year, the locomotive made its first trip from Paterson to Jersey City and New Brunswick and back. Over the next 40 years, 5,871 engines were to be made in Paterson and shipped all over North and South America.

Silk Industry Blooms; Submarine Launched

Silk manufacturing first began in Paterson in 1840 when a plant was established in Paterson's Old Gun Mill. By then, cotton manufacturing had mainly been moved to New England. Within ten years, Paterson became known as the "Silk City." Except for the cultivation of silkworms, all other stages of silk production took place there. In 1841 the town of Paterson was incorporated, growing to a population of almost 20,000 twenty years later. By 1870, the city was processing two-thirds of the raw silk imported into the United States and was attracting immigrant workers from Ireland, Italy, Germany, and Russia.

Just 18 years later, Paterson's population was approaching 51,000 people. That year, a local schoolteacher and inventor named John Phillip Holland tested the first successful submarine in the Passaic River. Unlike the silk industry, the submarine model didn't immediately have a smooth ride—even when Holland surprised a U.S. Navy ship on a secret maneuver, the Navy did not take his invention seriously and many years passed before the submarine came into widespread use.

During the next decade, a three-hour strike took place in local textile factories, led by foreign workers who had been forced to flee Europe for championing liberal causes. The strike was held to protest unbearable conditions in the silk mills. However, the strike did little to change the miserable working conditions.

Citizens Face Hardships

Paterson's next major strike took place in 1902, by which time the local population had reached more than 105,000 people and the city had become the fifteenth largest in the United States. That year brought many disasters to the city. A February fire destroyed 500 buildings, including city hall and the entire business district. Local firemen, with the help of those from nearby towns, finally halted the fire a mile from its starting point.

Residents were just beginning to recover from that loss when, in March, the swollen Passaic River engulfed the lower portions of the city, sweeping away bridges, homes, and buildings. Damages reached more than one million dollars. Then a few months later a tornado struck, uprooting trees and houses and crippling vital services in the city.

Labor Difficulties Lead to Strike

Paterson's silk industry reached its peak in 1910 when the city population stood at 125,600. At that time, there were 25,000 workers in 350 large plants who wove nearly 30 percent of the silk manufactured in the United States. Three years later, all millwork came to a standstill when laborers under the leadership of the Industrial Workers of the World labor group struck in support of the continuance of the two-loom system. The owners wanted to increase the number of looms for which each worker would be responsible but the workers balked.

Workers walked out in February 1913, citing a lengthy list of longstanding abuses of labor and poor worker-management relations. The employers then declared a lockout, meaning that workers could not return without the permission of the factory owners. Supporters of the strikers began marching on picket lines in front of the mills. After the violent death of a picketer, nearly 15,000 workers joined in a funeral procession, and even children struck in support of their worker-parents. Famous American radical John Reed, who was jailed during the walk-out, staged an enormous "Paterson pageant" in Madison Square Garden in New York City to raise money for the striking workers. But the greatest strike in the history of Paterson ended in the defeat of the workers, who finally went back to their jobs on management's terms.

Death of the Silk Industry

By 1920, Paterson's population had reached nearly 136,000 people. After World War I, the Wright Aeronautical Corporation began manufacturing airplane motors at an old Paterson silk mill, and for a time airplane engine production became the city's primary industry. But after World War II the industry moved elsewhere.

In 1924, 20,000 silk workers began an unsuccessful battle against a proposed four-loom system. Manufacturers decided they were fed up with labor disputes and began seeking new sites in new cities with lower taxes, cheaper power, and less militant workers. By 1925, the mills began to leave Paterson. Although 700 plants still operated in the city, they were much smaller than their former size.

As the years passed, the local textile industry continued to diminish. This was primarily due to antiquated plants that were unable to compete with those in other parts of the country, the introduction of synthetic materials such as nylon and rayon, and the breakdown of large working units into smaller shops. By 1935, only 4,000 workers were weaving silk in Paterson. In time, virtually all silk production there disappeared.

By the 1930s, the fabric dyeing industry was growing and soon Paterson's plants were producing 70 percent of the nation's silk and rayon. But as the years went on, this industry shrank as most of the mills moved elsewhere. During the second half of the twentieth century, Paterson experienced a great population loss and its stature as an important industrial city was diminished, although remnants of the garment industry still remain.

Present Day Paterson: Weaving Together the Past and the Future

In 1976, Paterson's Great Falls were declared a national natural landmark, marking the swath the river and falls have cut in the actual as well as the figurative landscape of the area. The city's fascinating history is preserved in literary works by two great twentieth-century poets, William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg. Williams's work entitled Paterson was published in five books in the mid-twentieth century and is considered one the greatest philosophical poems of the century. The Passaic River serves as the thread that binds the poems together.

While labor unrest ostensibly brought down the fabric industry in Paterson, those early protests generated new legislation that addressed a multitude of workplace issues such as child labor, worker safety, a minimum wage, and limitations for the workday. The price for being a system agitator has been a 36 percent decline in manufacturing industry over the past 10 years in the greater Paterson metropolitan area, although the region maintains its role in fabric dyeing. The city also remains a cultural melting pot as a result of its industrial past.

In recent years, Paterson has managed to make use of its former industrial buildings, which are enjoying new life as historical sites. The S.U.M. historic district has become a national historic landmark, with many of the buildings converted to a variety of other uses; the Rogers Locomotive Erecting Shop has become the Paterson Museum, which highlights the city's industrial history and is known for its Native American relics and collection of New Jersey minerals. While appreciating its past, Paterson is in the process of transitioning to being a service provider to the East Coast municipalities within its reach; finance, sales, and healthcare are all areas of new economic growth for the former textile powerhouse.

Historical Information: Passaic County Historical Society, c/o Lambert Castle, Valley Rd., Paterson, NJ 07503; telephone (973)247-0085; fax (973)881-9434; email