New Jersey: Paterson Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This industrial city, at 8.44 square miles, was founded as the site of the first planned industrial community in the United States by Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures (SUM), chartered by Alexander Hamilton. Its designer was Pierre Charles L’Enfant. The township was created in 1831; it became the Passaic County seat in 1837 and received a city charter in 1851. Great Falls of the Passaic was named a National Landmark in 1967, and Paterson is the site of the first U.S. Historic Industrial District.

Site Office

Great Falls Visitor Center

65 McBride Avenue

Great Falls Historic District

Paterson, NJ 07501-1715

ph.: (201) 279-9587

The third-largest city in New Jersey and the seat of Passaic County, Paterson was the first planned industrial community in the United States. Situated on a bend in the Passaic River, Paterson’s most prominent natural phenomenon–and one of the nation’s first tourist attractions–is the seventy-seven-foot Great Falls, which provided the water power that made Paterson “the silk capital of the world” and the birthplace of a number of industrial innovations, including America’s first locomotive, the Colt repeating cylinder revolver, the first practical submarine, and the engine of Charles A. Lindbergh’s famous airplane, The Spirit of St. Louis. Paterson is also important in the history of the labor movement; it is the site of both the first factory strike and the first company lockout in the United States. The industrial city was also the philosophical focal point of William Carlos Williams’s five-book poem, Paterson.

Designed as a corporation rather than a city, Paterson has experienced recurrent economic booms and busts throughout its history. It traditionally has been dependent upon one major industry–alternately cotton, railroad locomotives, silk, and airplane motors. More recently, its economy has diversified to include textile dyeing and the manufacture of chemicals, electronic parts, small machines, toys, dolls, cosmetics, and paper products. Yet, Paterson’s economy has remained precarious, and in the 1990’s major revitalization and renovation efforts were under way for the downtown area and historic district.

Early History

In 1679 the Dutch acquired the tract of land in what was to become Paterson, attracted to the area by the Lenni-Lenape Indians’ description of the Great Falls, which they called To-ta-wa. More than one hundred years later, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton also was impressed by the potential water power of the falls, and in November, 1791, the area was selected as the site of a model factory town by the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures (SUM). Chartered by Hamilton six months previously, SUM was a private support group established as part of a plan to encourage development of independent American industry and wean the fledgling nation from foreign industrial products. While SUM did not accomplish this goal, it did serve to stimulate the textile industry in Paterson. That year the settlement was named after William Paterson, governor of New Jersey, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a stockholder in SUM. Governor Paterson signed the controversial charter, which some critics believe led to government corruption in Paterson for centuries to follow and contributed to the city’s decline.

The charter, as approved by the New Jersey legislature, exempted the company from county and township taxes and gave it the right to hold $4 million in property and $1 million in stock, improve rivers, build canals, charge tolls, raise $100,000 by lottery, lay out and govern a six-square-mile section to be incorporated as a town, and engage in manufacturing. Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant, designer of Washington, D.C., was commissioned to plan the industrial community. SUM fired him two years later, claiming his extravagant designs were delaying the building of a raceway. Only his 1796 design, which took water from above the Passaic Falls, was used.

By the end of 1792, SUM had acquired between seven hundred and eight hundred acres of land, above and below the Passaic Falls, out of which Paterson grew. The settlement was reported to have no more than ten houses and fifty people at the time. In 1794, SUM built a small cotton mill on Mill Street on the middle raceway. This was Paterson’s first factory, the first cotton center in New Jersey, and the second such center in the country. The original four-story stone building, forty feet by ninety feet, was equipped with twenty-five spinning jennies and sixty single looms operated by an oxen-powered treadmill, as the raceways were not yet completed. Cotton manufacturing and machinery were so important to Paterson at this time that it was known as “the Cotton City.” Later, silk, linen, jute, hemp, wool, and smaller cotton plants took the place of the mill.

The First Labor Lockout in U.S. History

In 1794 SUM built a waterpower mill for making cotton cloth with facilities for one of the country’s first calico printing shops. That same year, disgruntled calico printers became disorderly and caused the mill to close its doors–the first lockout in American history. SUM closed the mill in 1796 and the following year, SUM collapsed as a result of the lockout, a disastrous business venture, and financial mismanagement. Paterson’s population, which had grown to five hundred, returned to fewer than fifty. SUM was reorganized in 1814 when the Colt family took over the organization. Although the reorganization led to a business boom–assisted by the War of 1812, which cut off the import of manufactured goods from Europe–some regarded the company as a dictatorship under the Colts.

In 1828, mill owners changed the lunch hour of the thirteen-and-a-half-hour workday from noon to one o’clock, in the supposed interest of the health and comfort of its child workers. Cotton workers abandoned their looms in protest, asking that the noon lunch hour be restored and that the workday be reduced to twelve hours. The cotton workers’ walkout was the first American factory strike. Paterson mechanics, carpenters, and masons also walked out in solidarity–the first recorded sympathy strike in the United States. The strike was a partial success; the noon lunch hour was restored, and, more important, the community took note of its workers’ concerns.

In 1835, under the leadership of the Paterson Association for the Protection of the Laboring Classes, twenty mills closed as workers struck for an eleven-hour workday. The strike ended six weeks later when a compromise was reached.


Paterson was named a township in 1831. That year, Morris Canal opened, reaching into the Pennsylvania coal fields. A year later, the first tracks were laid for the Paterson and Hudson River Railroad. In 1837, Thomas Rogers built one of the country’s first steam locomotives, the Sandusky, modeled after an English import, in John Clark’s Paterson machine shop. Mechanics from England and New England came to Paterson to begin manufacturing locomotives. For the next fifty years, nearly half of America’s locomotives were produced in Paterson. Rogers Locomotive Works manufactured the chief train-hauling locomotives of this era, including the Civil War’s General and Texas, as well as the first locomotives to lead transcontinental trains through the Rocky Mountains. By 1888, 5,871 engines were manufactured in Paterson for use throughout the hemisphere. By the end of the century, Paterson produced 80 percent of the locomotives manufactured in the United States. At this time, Paterson was the fastest-growing city on the East Coast; its population increased by about 50 percent every decade.

In 1835, Samuel Colt patented the world’s first successful repeating cylinder revolver. The following year, when Paterson became the Passaic County seat, he established the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company in Paterson, known as “the Gun Mill,” where he began manufacturing his Colt “Paterson.”

In 1838, in the same mill, Samuel Colt’s brother, Christopher, opened Paterson’s first silk weaving plant. The venture was not prosperous, and it was abandoned a few months later. The following year, the Colt factory also stopped manufacturing its revolvers when peace following the Seminole War forced a shutdown. The Gun Mill had produced 2,850 revolvers.

Silk production in Paterson resumed in 1843, when George Murray and John Ryle, who bought out Christopher Colt’s interest, founded the Pioneer Silk Company. In 1851, Paterson received its city charter. By 1865, the new city was processing two-thirds of the country’s silk imports, and by the late 1880’s, it was dubbed “Silk City” and its silk products were shipped worldwide.

In 1878, Irish American schoolteacher and inventor John P. Holland tested his fourteen-foot submarine in the Passaic River, about two hundred yards north of the Great Falls, where it sank after its first trial. Holland eventually kept the underwater boat down for twenty-four hours, but it sank in the mud of the river bank, where it remained submerged for nearly fifty years. The submarine is on display in the Paterson Museum. In 1881, Holland produced the thirty-one-foot Fenian Ram, which was built for a crew of three, powered with a one-cylinder combustion engine, and traveled at a maximum speed of nine miles an hour–but lacked a periscope. Launched from Staten Island, it remained submerged one hundred feet below the surface for an hour, then collided with a ferry at Weehawken. Fenian Ram was later salvaged and is on display in a small plaza in Paterson’s Westside Park. In 1893, the U.S. government awarded a contract to Holland for his submarine design. The Navy began using its first submarine, the Holland, seven years later. Holland began producing his submarines through his own company, the J. P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company.

Paterson in the Twentieth Century

By 1900, Paterson was the fifteenth largest city in the United States and one of the nation’s leading industrial centers. Two years later, however, the city was devastated by a series of major natural disasters. On February 8 and 9, 1902, a fire destroyed more than five hundred buildings in the center of the city, including the entire Paterson business district. Jersey City and Hackensack firefighters stopped the fire a mile from its origin. Less than a month later, on March 2, the Passaic River flooded the downtown area, destroying bridges, homes, and buildings. Several months later, a tornado tore through Paterson, uprooting trees, destroying houses, and cutting off city services.

The city recovered, and eight years later, as the silk industry peaked, Paterson employed twenty-five thousand workers who wove nearly 30 percent of the country’s silk in three hundred fifty plants. Then, three years later, on January 23, 1913, a bitter five-month strike began in Paterson’s Henry Doherty Silk Mill. Under the leadership of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), more than twenty-four thousand men, women, and children walked out of Paterson’s silk mills, calling for an eight-hour workday, an end to child labor, improved working conditions, and a halt to mill owners’ plans to increase the number of looms tended by each worker from two to four. On February 15, employers declared a lockout. Picket lines were led by IWW’s William “Big Bill” Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Carlo Tresca, and John Reed. From January to July, there was violent picketing, 2,837 arrests, and a shooting, in which one picketer was killed. For this worker, Haywood led a funeral procession of fifteen thousand.

During the strike a group of Paterson workers walked sixteen miles to New York in a solidarity movement–to which New York workers reciprocated with a return trip to Paterson. On May 1, fifty strikers’ children were transferred to New York City to be fed and to send a message addressing Paterson’s alleged inability to provide relief to its citizens. On June 7, the “Paterson Pageant” rally, organized by Reed, was held in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Although workers returned to their looms defeated in July, the walkout was Paterson’s greatest strike and an important struggle in New Jersey and labor history.

In 1924, twenty thousand Paterson silk workers again fought unsuccessfully against the four-loom system. In 1933, Paterson silk workers’ and dyers’ unions won the first strike in years, increasing pay from twelve and thirteen dollars weekly to eighteen and twenty-two dollars weekly in the silk mills, and from as low as twenty cents per hour to sixty-six cents per hour in the dye plants. As a result of the 1933 strike, Paterson dyers became part of the largest union in New Jersey. However, another silk and dye strike the following year was not as successful.

In 1933, Charles Roemer, a former Paterson city attorney, sued to have SUM dissolved, claiming that it had violated its charter. The case came before the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1936, and SUM lawyers won the case. In 1946, SUM finally dissolved, more than one hundred fifty years after it was chartered. Some charged that SUM had doomed Paterson from the beginning. Writer Christopher Norwood asserts, “Since 1796, [SUM] had broken the provisions of an all too provident charter; it had obviously violated antitrust laws; it had corrupted the government of New Jersey.” Norwood blames SUM for what he calls “a total failure in that the city’s structure–its economy, government, and natural resources–had no relation to its citizens.” Norwood further accuses SUM of tampering with the water supply of the Great Falls: “Toward the end of [SUM’s] reign, [it] began diverting 75 million gallons a day out of a normal flow of 87,500,000, changing the cascade into a polluted trickle.”

The “Vilest Swillhole in Christendom”

The “meek Falls of the Passaic” described almost two hundred years earlier by Alexander Hamilton, had become, for Rutherford, New Jersey’s poet, William Carlos Williams, “the vilest swillhole in Christendom.” The Passaic River served as the thread that linked the complex components of William’s philosophical five-book poem, Paterson, published between 1946 and 1958. Williams saw Paterson as a prototypical American city of hope and despair, triumph and defeat. The poem is noted for its overriding metaphor that “man in himself is a city.” Considered one of the major philosophical poems of the twentieth century, Paterson was said to have provoked a literary explosion against materialism and machinery.

World War II served to revive Paterson’s economy, and some regarded the years from the war to the early 1950’s as a temporary renaissance for Paterson. In the postwar years, however, Paterson, like many cities during this period, experienced a decline in local industry. Paterson’s Wright Aeronautical went from a wartime peak of sixty thousand employees to five thousand, after which the company moved to the suburbs. Paterson’s reign as “the silk capital of the world” ended as silk was replaced by synthetic fabrics such as rayon.

In the 1950’s, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) programs supplied Paterson with funding for better housing, schools, and other services. Yet, some felt that HUD–like SUM–acted as yet another conglomerate that limited Paterson’s power. In the 1960’s, Paterson was rocked by race riots–including one in 1967, in which twenty-seven people were killed. By the 1970’s the city had become infamous for its crime, drug problems, and government corruption.

Modern Preservation Efforts

In 1967 the Great Falls became a registered National Landmark; four years later, the 89-acre area between Spruce and Market Streets was designated the Great Falls Historic District. The district was subsequently expanded, and in 1976 President Gerald Ford declared the entire 119-acre district the first federally designated National Historic Industrial District. The district’s focal point is the Paterson Museum, located in Thomas Rogers’s former locomotive shop and showcasing Paterson’s industrial, political, and cultural history.

As Paterson observed its bicentennial in the 1990’s, major renovation and revitalization efforts were under way for the city, including construction of the Roe Federal Building and the Passaic County Administration Building; renovation of the railroad station and traffic signalization; replacement of city and street signs; renovation of Cooke Mill and planned development projects in the historic district, where former mill buildings would be converted into offices, medical clinics, retail establishments, and residences; and the Center City Project in downtown Paterson, where a two-block complex of offices, retail shops, restaurants, a hotel, and the twenty-two thousand-square-foot, five hundred-seat “Silk City Stadium” would be built. The completion in the early 1990’s of the Route 19 Interchange into Paterson facilitates access into the revitalized historic district, which city developers, leaders, and boosters called “the key to Paterson’s future,” in the hope that the city’s economy would also be revitalized as it moved into the twenty-first century.

For Further Information
  • Iozia, Joseph. Discovering Paterson in the Civil War. Hightstown, N.J.: Longstreet House, 1996. A history of Paterson and the Seventh New Jersey Infantry Regiment in the Civil War.
  • Kenyon, James Byron. Industrial Localization and Metropolitan Growth: The Paterson-Passaic District. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1960. This research paper is a finely detailed case study of Paterson’s industrial development with many historical photographs, charts, graphs, and statistics.
  • Norwood, Christopher. About Paterson: The Making and Unmaking of an American City. New York: Saturday Review Press, 1974. A critical commentary on the city’s economic, political, and social development, with a special focus on SUM.
  • Tripp, Anne Huber. The I.W.W. and the Paterson Silk Strike of 1913. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987. A detailed account of the history of the Industrial Workers of the World, with emphasis on the Paterson silk workers’ strike of 1913.
Categories: History