Falling for Paterson’s Great Falls

The Silk City’s natural wonder puts on a fresh face.

Paterson's Great Falls.
A classic view of the Great Falls in Paterson. The renovated footbridge is expected to reopen this spring.
Photo by Steve Greer

As superintendent of the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park, Darren Boch has a noble goal. A native of Paterson, he wants to put his city “back on the map as a destination”—not just for longtime New Jersey residents, but for newer generations of Americans.

The federal government in 2011 added the Great Falls to the National Park System—the same service that cares for such American treasures as Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty. Since the designation, the area around the Great Falls has been undergoing major renovations—with more planned for the coming years.

If you haven’t visited the Great Falls lately, this spring would be a great time to see what’s new. The falls are a glorious 77 feet tall—and a sight to behold. But the surrounding historic district also has many worthy attractions. It’s all very personal for Boch, whose grandparents were Paterson textile workers. We asked him for a Paterson primer.

For those who have never visited Paterson, what are the top sights?
I’m partial to the Great Falls as the number one thing to see, but beyond that I’d say Lambert Castle and the Paterson Museum. The castle was home to one of Paterson’s silk mill owners and overlooks the city from Garret Mountain Reservation. It’s now home to the Passaic County Historical Society. I also tell visitors to go to the Paterson Museum. It tells the story of Paterson, which is really the story of America. You can see a lot of what was made here, and how it was made.

What can visitors expect this spring in terms of improvements at the falls?
We hope that Mary Ellen Kramer Park will be re-opened so visitors can again walk the footbridge that spans the Passaic and affords the best view of the falls….We’re also opening a new welcome center in the park, which will include a store that sells gifts and books. The next project we hope to undertake is a rehab of Overlook Park, the place where most visitors park and begin their visit.

What’s the connection between the Great Falls and the historic district?
The Great Falls is located within the historic district, which is about 115 acres. The site was declared a national landmark in 1976 by President Ford.

What food options are available near the park?
There are more than 50 ethnicities represented in Paterson, so the food options are varied and numerous. Visitors to the Great Falls can get a hot dog at Libby’s Lunch [98 McBride Avenue], which is a landmark in its own right, or they can venture down Market Street to experience a number of great ethnic restaurants.

The new Broadway musical, Hamilton, tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, a founding father who is also the founder of Paterson. How does the musical relate to the Great Falls?
The musical references what kind of America Hamilton wanted, and in that sense Paterson takes center stage. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Hamilton wanted the U.S. to be an economic powerhouse, a nation that would make its own stuff and bring a diversity of talents here to make it. He founded Paterson as the first planned industrial city in the country, becoming Exhibit A in the argument Hamilton would ultimately win.

Is it true that Hamilton, Washington and Lafayette paused for lunch at the falls during the Revolutionary War?
Yes, they did, in July of 1778. It’s not surprising since the Great Falls were New Jersey’s first major tourist attraction and people passing near here often paid a visit. One of Washington’s aides, Colonel James McHenry, who lunched here with the general and his party, wrote in his journal that the falls were “a place well formed for love.”

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