Hamilton Honored at Great Falls Gathering

The Record
By:  John Cichowski, Staff
Feb. 20, 2001

PATERSON -- On a day for honoring presidents, a U.S. senator went to the Great Falls to honor a presidential nemesis whose vision of an industrial America prevailed over the agrarian notions of Thomas Jefferson.

"It was Alexander Hamilton who won the battle, and the roots of that struggle start right here," Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, D-N.J., told nearly 100 local officials who gathered Monday at the statue of the city's founder and first U.S. Treasury secretary.

Flanked by Mayor Marty Barnes and the local congressman, Torricelli announced that he and Sen. Jon S. Corzine were introducing a bill to authorize a federal study that would make a powerful case for turning the neglected Great Falls Historic District into a park run by the National Park Service.

"Hamilton provided a laboratory in Paterson for the largest economy the world has ever seen," Torricelli said, citing the city's leadership in producing silk, textiles, locomotives, the Colt revolver, the first submarine, and developing a huge labor force.

"Someday, buses will line the streets . . . so that students and families will learn all about it."

Torricelli, a Bergen County Democrat who was born in a Paterson hospital in 1951, said the designation would spur commercial growth throughout the depressed city as well as the region.

The message seemed to warm local officials, some of whom have been working for two decades to win a park-service designation.

"This is hallowed ground," said Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., a Democrat and former mayor, recalling the 1976 visit by Gerald Ford, who was then president and announced the falls' designation as a National Historic District.

"Now we have two U.S. senators telling us they'll help us fix this city," said Barnes, a Republican. "It's a dream come true."

"A national park could mean a real economic boost to this city and this county," said Pat DiIanni, president of Vision 20/20, a Passaic County improvement group that has been lobbying for a national park.

Large parks run by the National Park Service, such as Yellowstone, and smaller ones, such as the Morristown National Park, generate substantial tourism for their host communities, DiIanni said.

Monday's announcement was a light moment in contrast to recent headlines about FBI investigations of Torricelli's campaign finances and Barnes' dealings with a sewer contractor. Both have denied any wrongdoing but did not comment on the investigations Monday.

The event marked the first time both men have actively supported the Park Service initiative, which Pascrell pursued aggressively as mayor.

"To make this happen, we need strong support in the Senate, from the city administration, and from grass-roots people. I think we have it now," said the congressman, who left City Hall in 1997.

Several serious obstacles remain, however.

Both Pascrell and Barnes support a stalled plan for moderate-income housing on seven acres within the 119-acre falls district. This site includes the burnt-out hulk of the Allied Textile mill, where Samuel Colt manufactured the first repeating firearm in 1836 and where John Ryle produced the nation's first skein of silk four years later.

Local historians want the roofless landmark rehabilitated. Although a federal grant has stabilized the building, it is sometimes used by derelicts, and some city officials believe a series of fires have hopelessly undermined its historical value.

The site also must overcome some misgivings by the National Park Service, which already has built a park around textile mills in Lowell, Mass., another Northeastern industrial landmark.

"There is no reason the Northeast can't have two parks," said Torricelli, noting the unique nature of the falls and their relationship to Hamilton.

Citing the potential for power generated by water wheels on the Great Falls, Hamilton asked Congress to designate the district as the nation's first industrial city. When Congress rejected the treasury secretary's idea, Hamilton and other investors created the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures and founded the city around this experiment in 1792. Paterson remained a leading manufacturing center until the suburbanization of the 1950s.

"But we natives hardly knew about it," said Pascrell, citing his roots in the city's southern section. "I didn't come see them until I was 18 years old."

Throughout his life, Hamilton fought Jefferson's notions of an economy based on agriculture. Nevertheless, he gave his crucial support to the Virginian in the 1800 election, which was thrown into the House of Representatives when the vote was deadlocked between Jefferson and Newark's Aaron Burr, whom Hamilton distrusted. Burr killed Hamilton in a duel in Weehawken in 1804.

The symbolism of Hamilton's lost promise and Paterson's faded past is not lost on the city's minorities.

"The founder of our city was born on the island of Nevis in the West Indies," City Council President William Kline told the crowd, alluding to Hamilton's mother, a woman of black ancestry who gave birth to James Hamilton's child while married to another man.