How the Paterson Great Falls Became a National Park
On Monday I had the distinct honor of joining President Barack Obama at the White House for a ceremony that established a new national park at the Great Falls, consecrating Paterson’s transformative role in American history.
It was a special day, but not the first I spent with an American president committed to preserving Paterson’s rich history. Thirty three years ago on a rainy afternoon in Paterson my fight to establish this national park was inspired by the words of another president.
President Gerald Ford from the great manufacturing state of Michigan visited the Falls just weeks before America celebrated its bicentennial. With a native Patersonian, Bill Simon, serving as his Treasury Secretary President Ford fully understood the history of America’s industrial economy and recognized Paterson as its birthplace. It was June 6, 1976 and President Ford spoke forcefully of the Falls’ inextricable connection to America’s economic strength.
I served as master of ceremonies that day. Pat Kramer was my mayor, Bob Roe my Congressman and Brendan Byrne my Governor. All were present as sheets of rain swelled the Passaic River demonstrating the Falls’ incredible power. It was a sight that I am pleased President Ford was able to behold.
With water thundering down from a precipice 77 feet above us, President Ford described the Falls as, “a symbol of the industrial might which helps make America the mot powerful nation in the world.”
His words remained with me as I fought to preserve the Falls in the New Jersey General Assembly and later as the Mayor of Paterson. Twenty years after President Ford’s visit, I won a seat in Congress. Starting in 1997 I was able to really get my hands dirty fighting to preserve Paterson’s history in the sacred national park system.
The case I made in Washington with Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez was simple. Paterson’s unique combination of rich historical significance and incredible natural splendor distinguish it from any other national park and make it worthy of being designated as such.
To borrow words from historian Richard Brookhiser, the Falls represent “a seminal American site, the Bethlehem of Capitalism, ground zero of modern America.” Alexander Hamilton was the man whose vision ultimately harnessed the power of the Falls and diversified America’s economy. He transformed America from an agrarian society dependent on slavery into a manufacturing economy based on freedom. The Falls’ incredible history is not told enough outside of New Jersey classrooms, but remains undeniably significant to America’s position in the global economy today.
In addition to serving as a living reminder of America’s manufacturing history, the Falls are physically a natural wonder. Uniquely set in an urban neighborhood, the Falls stand nearly eighty feet tall, making them the second largest by volume east of the Mississippi River.
Educating Congress on the Falls’ historical significance and natural elements helped us achieve a number of victories. We were able to authorize a federal study of the Falls in 2001 and we won approval for the national park designation in one body of Congress in 2007. But our ultimate goal remained obstructed by geographically charged challenges and the Bush administration’s fundamental opposition to expanding preservation efforts.
The start of a new Congress and beginning of a new presidency helped put years of partisan hurdles and politically motivated opposition aside.
President Obama’s action in the White House on Monday triggered a sweeping expansion of preservation efforts on public lands all across America. By including places like Paterson the President reminded us that history must not be judged on partisan grounds and that preservation should not only be reserved only for our most pristine areas. The Paterson Great Falls may never be as grand as Yellowstone, but who is to say that acreage should be the basis for how we remember history. Whether an area is rural or urban in the 21st century should not be criteria for how it is presented to future generations.
Senators Lautenberg, Menendez and I made concessions to our original vision in order to reach this point. Working responsibly in Congress and with the Interior Department we are proud to have successfully designated approximately 35 acres of the Great Falls National Historic District as the new Great Falls National Historical Park.
When I left the White House on Monday, I was proud to know that Paterson will finally be fully recognized for the seminal role it has played in shaping American history. The establishment of this national park marks an historic moment for the city of Paterson and the state of New Jersey. This unique urban national park represents a new opportunity for Paterson to embrace its history, grow its economy and become a safer, stronger community.
U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr. Represents the Eighth Congressional District of New Jersey