Colt Mill Rescued From Ruins, Paterson Site Awaits Restoration

The Herald News
By:  Bill Hughes, Staff
Sept. 2, 2000

PATERSON - In what officials have called the most significant accomplishment of historic preservation undertaken in years, workers put the finishing touches this week on a $685,000 project to stabilize the former site of Samuel Colt's first gun mill in the Great Falls Historic District.

The project involved the disposal of tons of debris and the delicate removal of thousands of stones, one at a time, from the teetering walls of the old mill, which was built in 1836. Each finished stone from the building's exterior was carefully cataloged, tagged, and stored in wooden crates on the site.

Workers also constructed elaborate bracing systems for the remaining solid portions of the structure, and waterproofed the top edges of the entire perimeter of the exterior wall sections.

"After all these years of slow movement, something's finally appearing and it really looks good," said Mayor Martin G. Barnes. "This is the first piece of a much larger puzzle, and hopefully things will start falling into place and we'll get the rest of the project for that site underway."

The braces now holding the eastern and western walls upright are comprised of chain-link netting pressed together by horizontal bars made of steel U-channel and pressure-treated lumber and anchored to massive concrete blocks specially poured onto strategic locations around the building.

The top edges of the entire perimeter of the building have been capped with waterproof, steel-reinforced cement to prevent future water damage to the remaining structure.

"It's like a giant Band-Aid around the building," said Sal Strano, a project manager with Robert Charles Enterprises, the Secaucus firm that performed the physical work. "It's a crude way to describe it, but that's more or less what it is."

Strano said work crews varying between six and 10 men spent the past three months filling 10 trash bins with debris from the site and pouring roughly 60 tons of cement to form the stabilizing piers that now hold the largest wall sections upright.

The project, which finished on schedule and under budget, was funded by matching grants from the federal Urban History Initiative secured for the city by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-Cliffside Park, in 1992, and the New Jersey Historic Trust.

"This is the kind of restoration work people come back from Europe and talk about," said Mike Wing, the coordinator for the city's Historic Preservation Commission. "People said it could never happen in a city like Paterson, but here it is."

Bill Brookover, a historical architect with the National Parks Service who oversaw the project, said the stabilization was an important step in the overall development of the Great Falls Historic District.

"This is a very unusual project because the Colt Gun Mill is very important, but it's in a ruinous state and it's difficult to discern what is worth saving," Brookover said. "Until now it hasn't been safe to go in there and assess the situation accurately. The next step is to clean up the inside then come up with a workable preservation plan and the funding to do it."

Brookover and Wing said there is probably asbestos contamination inside the ruins that will have to be removed before other work can be performed, but both are hoping there are no other serious hazardous materials on the site.

The ruins of the mill, which sit on a spit of land downstream of Paterson's Great Falls just beyond the intersection of Van Houten and Mill streets, have lain fallow for decades after a 1983 fire gutted the building. The last productive use of the structure involved silk dyeing by the Allied Textile Printing Co., which abandoned the 7.5-acre site a few years before the fire.

Most recently, the city approved the sale and development of the site to a Yonkers firm, which originally planned to build 190 units of mixed-income townhouse units with a café and a river walkway. The sale has not been finalized, however, due to a variety of obstacles including lack of state and federal approval and a lawsuit against the developer by a local preservation group filed earlier this year.

Barnes said the developer, Larry Regan, is now seeking to change the project from a group of two-story, vinyl-sided townhouses to one larger, mill-style apartment building.

Regardless of what happens to the rest of the site, the Colt Mill will be preserved in one form or another as a separate entity. The building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was the site on which Samuel Colt produced the Colt Paterson, a weapon that earned the nickname, "The Gun That Tamed The West."

Although Colt's original business failed in Paterson before flourishing in Hartford, Conn., approximately 5,000 weapons were produced in Paterson, of which 500 are known to still exist, according to Paterson Museum Director Giacomo DeStefano.