Paterson, NJ

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What happened here:

Place name:  The Great Falls 

Location: Paterson, NJ

Event in Hamilton’s life:
During President George Washington’s first Administration, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was deeply concerned that the nation was still dependent on England for all essential manufactured goods, including military supplies.  As part of his strategy to achieve U.S. economic independence from foreign powers, Hamilton drafted the legislation for New Jersey’s first corporation, called the Society for the Establishing of Useful Manufactures (S.U.M.). Hamilton raised private funds for the S.U.M. to acquire land at what was then the nation’s most powerful waterfall, the Great Falls on the Passaic River in Paterson, New Jersey. The S.U.M. became a successful incubator of manufacturing start-ups for the next century and a half, making Paterson the first planned industrial city in America.

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Hamilton first saw the Great Falls, which are 77 feet high and about 300 feet wide, during the Revolutionary War on July 10, 1778, while having lunch with George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette. Hamilton recognized that the natural settings of the Great Falls held great potential for the successful growth of manufactures. As Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton chose the Great Falls as the site where he began implementing his far-reaching plan to make America’s economy independent of foreign power. After overcoming early obstacles in the 1790’s during the aftermath of the nation’s first financial crisis, the S.U.M. used the broad powers Hamilton had written into its corporate charter to adapt to changing economic times in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was a highly profitable venture from 1800 until the City of Paterson acquired the corporation in 1945.

In his Report on Manufactures of December 1791, Hamilton advocated for the promotion of manufacturing as the basis of the U.S. economy, which would allow the U.S. to become a strong and independent world power. Despite intense political opposition, Hamilton succeeded in having Congress enact virtually all of the tariff proposals made in the Report within six months of its delivery. To further cement his economic vision, Hamilton founded Paterson as a planned city of industry and innovation that would help stimulate interest and investment in manufacturing elsewhere. The S.U.M. was the mechanism by which Hamilton’s ideas were put into practice, as it set about acquiring land, building factories, and developing a system of power canals, called “raceways,” based on a design by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the planner of Washington, D.C.

Paterson would demonstrate the prescience of the vision that Hamilton first articulated in his Report on Manufactures, and his deeply held belief in a meritocracy that rewarded hard work and accomplishments, rather than inherited wealth or social status. Hamilton believed that a manufacturing-based economy would not only provide economic independence for the new nation, but also “the promoting of immigration from foreign countries” and “the furnishing of greater scope for the diversity of talents.” Manufacturing and innovation in the city grew steadily between 1800 and the middle of the 20th century with the arrival of skilled immigrants seeking opportunities for social and economic mobility. For entrepreneurs, Paterson offered opportunities unlike any other city in the world. The S.U.M significantly lowered barriers to entry into manufacturing for people who lacked access to capital, providing the land, factories, and power needed to get new business ideas going. Like Silicon Valley today, Paterson was a start-up incubator that helped spark America’s Industrial Revolution and enabled many to gain an economic foothold. In 19th-century Paterson, virtually all of the wealthy industrialists started as poor immigrants.

Industry and innovation characterized Paterson over its long history as a premier American city. Products invented, developed, and manufactured in Paterson made headlines around the world and captured people’s imaginations. Known as “Silk City,” Paterson became the largest manufacturer of silk goods in the world during the 19th century. More than a hundred factories were located in Paterson, producing cotton, flax, paper, and a number of other products in addition to silk. The city thrived as a center for innovation, where some of its most famous products included the first Colt firearms, the first motorized submarine, the engine for Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, and both locomotives used in the Civil War’s Great Locomotive Chase as well as hundreds used in the construction of the Panama Canal. The establishment of the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park in 2011 was a great achievement by a city that has always appreciated its past and the legacy of its founder, while looking to its future.

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How to visit:

Today in Paterson, you can visit the Great Falls National Historic Park, a National Park Service site that overlooks the Great Falls of the Passaic River. The park features a welcome center, a historic S.U.M building, the original raceways, a Hamilton statue overlooking the falls, and more. If you have a smart phone or tablet, download the free Mill Mile app, which features tour stops narrated by news anchor Brian Williams, NFL star Victor Cruz, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Junot Díaz, and more.

Pay a visit to the Paterson Museum, which hosts an impressive collection of industrial products that came out of Paterson. The Ivanhoe Wheelhouse Museum and Art Gallery, housed in an old mill on the original raceways designed by Pierre L'Enfant, is home to the Ivanhoe Artists.

If you can't visit the area personally, take a virtual tour of Mill Mile in Paterson.

Visiting Information: 

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