As the Golden Age Tarnished

The Herald News
By:  Bill Hughes and John Gohlke
March 13, 2000

Over the two centuries since they were founded, occasional comparisons have been drawn between Paterson and a place roughly 200 miles to the northeast in Massachusetts, another scrappy mill town gone bust by the name of Lowell.

On the banks of another sloping river just downstream from a waterfall, Lowell also was a thriving textile center built on immigrant labor and virtually ruined as manufacturing jobs were sapped from the region.

The two cities' tales have risen and fallen together, running parallel until just the last tenth of their histories, when the groundwork was set for Lowell's remarkable recovery while Paterson's decline continued.

The reasons for the divergence are predictably complex, but leaders in both cities agree that much of the difference was a matter of political will.

"In Paterson it seems to be part of the political culture to think small," said New Jersey Sen. Norm Robertson, a Clifton Republican and attorney for a Paterson historic preservation group.

True, Lowell and Paterson are not identical. The New Jersey city today is larger by about half than Lowell and more racially diverse - nearly three-quarters of its 150,000 residents black and Hispanic. Minorities make up only a quarter of the New England city's population, which is 11 percent Asian-American, 10 percent Hispanic and less than 2 percent black, according to the last Census.

But the similarities are extraordinary, often uncanny - from sweeping similarities in economics to quirky tendencies such as beatnik sons.

Their common origins have given the two cities strikingly similar aesthetics, both dominated by the red-brick behemoths that housed bustling factories, with outlying residential neighborhoods that feature magnificent Victorian homes. Paterson and Lowell sprang up during the early 19th century, conceived and planned by speculators bent on making fortunes through the force of natural rivers and the power of manmade machines. And their thriving pasts built on industry set up both for precipitous drops into poverty as the 20th century wore on.

The histories of Paterson and Lowell began shortly after the Revolutionary War, with the fledgling republic's drive to shed its role as the British Empire's supplier of raw materials. While Thomas Jefferson and others argued passionately against industrialization, due partly to inhumane working conditions in Europe's factories - a prescient point for Lowell and Paterson - men like Alexander Hamilton realized that the United States could not remain an agrarian society dependent on foreign finished goods.

Legend has it that Hamilton first saw the Passaic River's Great Falls while traveling with George Washington as a lieutenant colonel during the Revolution. What's known is that, while serving as treasury secretary under Washington, Hamilton proposed a manufacturing center at the falls and, in 1791, the New Jersey Legislature chartered the Society for Establishing Useful Manufacturers, which would oversee the planned city.

While several mid-Atlantic locations were considered, the 77-foot Great Falls' potential to power the mills was without equal. The committee that chose the area suggested the name "Hamilton" but, aware of his political unpopularity, the federalist advised against it. The city would eventually be named for a fellow Constitution framer, William Paterson, who was New Jersey's third elected governor.

After the turn of the century, industrialist Francis Cabot Lowell would give his name to another burgeoning industrial city on the banks of a rapidly flowing river. Beginning in the early 19th century, Lowell was planned at the site of a Massachusetts farming village on the banks of the Merrimack River, just downstream from the Pawtucket Falls. While that cascade was only half the height of Paterson's Great Falls - which is second only to Niagara Falls in the East - the Merrimack's greater volume more than compensated, eventually feeding an extensive, 5.6-mile canal system that was carved into the city.

Lowell, who was said to have memorized the workings of a cloth mill during a trip to Manchester, England, in 1810, persuaded a group of investors to finance the city as the Boston Manufacturing Co. Like Paterson's Society for Establishing Useful Manufacturers, the company was formed with the goal of harnessing water power to spin raw cotton into fabrics. While Lowell and Paterson each make claims to being the nation's first industrial city, records show the latter had more than a dozen mills processing some 1.5 million pounds of raw cotton before Lowell's first mill geared up in 1823.

While it may not have been chronologically first, Lowell had a head start in other ways. The Boston Manufacturing Co. showed cunning and foresight by purchasing land and water rights around the city and miles upriver into the mountains of southern New Hampshire, all the way to the headwaters of the Merrimack and Concord rivers, which converge at the city. The company also had a knack for control, partly because its small core of wealthy investors held interests in all the projects.

By contrast, Paterson's Society for Establishing Useful Manufacturers, a coterie of wealthy financial speculators, was unstable and soon plagued by corruption and scandal. The stock market crashed the year after the society's charter, in 1792, partly due to a speculation scam perpetrated by its first governor, William Duer, who later died in a debtors' prison. In another early disaster, a society director vanished in Europe, along with $50,000 meant to buy materials and equipment.

Also inauspicious was the rejection of the initial plan for the city, followed by the firing of the man behind it, Pierre Charles L'Enfant, the engineer who designed Washington, D.C.

"L'Enfant's original design was a magnificent, classic, European-style city with majestic boulevards radiating out from a town center," said Passaic County Historian Ed Smyk. "But there's no doubt that the S.U.M. didn't have the capital to sustain the project."

L'Enfant was replaced by Connecticut Treasury Secretary Peter Colt, who conceived the raceway system that powered the first mills. Colt fathered a famous Paterson family; one of his sons, Roswell, later rescued the society when it verged on collapse, purchasing most of its nearly worthless stock.

Because of the shifting fortunes of the S.U.M., Paterson's businesses changed hands frequently, many flourishing and failing rapidly, others evolving with technology. By the mid-19th century, though, the city thrived. Its mills diversified, manufacturing the first Colt revolvers and venturing into silk textiles in the 1830s, engendering the nickname "Silk City." Lowell, meanwhile, as one of the country's largest cotton-textile centers, was called the "Spindle City."

There was a dark but lucrative side to the cities' successes, too - the exploitation of immigrant workers. Beginning in the 19th century and extending through the 20th, a now familiar pattern of greed and abuse emerged as millers strove to drive up profits at the expense of laborers. As technology improved and machines replaced people, owners took advantage of job insecurity by demanding longer hours and greater output.

While employees intermittently tried to organize for higher pay, shorter hours and better conditions, each immigrant group was replaced by the latest arrivals, more desperate for work and less accustomed to challenging owners.

Bloody labor protests flared up across the country in the early 20th century, among them a major 1912 strike in Lowell and the 1913 Silk Strike in Paterson. Pickets were routinely clubbed and shot by police and private detectives, and organizers were tossed into jail. Heightened public awareness eventually forced stricter labor laws, but the backlash would speed the demise of the Northeast's industrial boomtowns.

When the Great Depression hit the country, it came early and lingered long in Lowell and Paterson. With the economy collapsing and new laws restricting labor practices, many mill owners opted to close up shop and move south. Both cities became increasingly polluted and abandoned industrial wastelands, with crime and unemployment mounting. The two most famous writers of America's Beat Generation emerged from the aftermath: the Paterson-raised poet Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, the novelist from Lowell.

The civil rights struggles of the 1960s and '70s helped drive manufacturing overseas. Lowell and Paterson fell into tailspins interrupted only briefly by booms during the first and second World Wars, their industrial fame fading into impoverished notoriety.

But the cities parted ways during the mid-1970s, when Lowell found itself bouncing back and Paterson continued its long decline.

"A lot of people would say Lowell hit bottom in 1975," said Peter Aucella, the city's superintendent for the National Park Service, which has jurisdiction over 127 acres of the historic downtown district. "But in the five years between '75 and '80, the city positioned itself to ride the economic boom of the '80s."

The push began when the city successfully applied for historic landmark designation from both the state in 1974 and from the federal government in 1978, Aucella said. National park status brought the city about $80 million in grants and helped establish a tourism industry fueled by about 500,000 visitors each year.

"There was a big bang in Lowell, and that made all the difference," said Flavia Alaya, a teacher, author and former chairwoman of Paterson's Historic Preservation Commission. "There were people up there who didn't want it, just as there were people here who didn't want it.

"But once it happened, you couldn't reverse it. You had to go with it."

Alaya and others believe political cohesion is not only Lowell's greatest asset, but one Paterson has traditionally lacked. One result for the Massachusetts town was a series of public-private partnerships overseen by business leaders and public officials.

Henry Marchand is the assistant director of one such privately funded economic development corporation, the Lowell Plan, which is overseen by a 34-member board comprising a wide cross-section of city powerbrokers.

"Our primary function is to bring both sides together to discuss issues and projects, and to keep everybody on the same page," said Marchand, referring to the public and private sectors. "When you keep the lines of communication open and the dialogue active, you can be very persuasive in getting people to work together for a common goal."

An ability to execute deals has paid off very visibly for Lowell. In recent years, the city has seen the debuts of a 6,500-seat indoor arena, a 5,100-seat minor-league baseball stadium and two college campuses.

"What we've managed to do over the years is to keep our political leaders focused on the long view," Marchand said.