A Look at Paterson Silk City

It's a point of pride for many Northern New Jerseyans that their part of the state was home to some of the most compelling chapters in American history, industry, and social change. Of the many small cities with a deep connection to that history and heritage, Paterson, on the banks of the Passaic River, is not one to be overlooked.

Revolution and Industry

Before Paterson became the nation's first planned industrial city, the soon-to-be town and its surrounding countryside— including the 77-foot-high Great Falls of the Passaic, the nation's third-largest waterfall—was called Acquachonounk, and was the homeland of the Lenape Indians. Later, the land played host to Dutch settlers, warring Revolutionary armies, and a budding Industrial Revolution.

Before the town's founding in 1791 and its official incorporation in 1831, Paterson's namesake, William Paterson, was a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. There, he had a hand in writing the Constitution, and put forth the New Jersey Plan, which spelled out states' rights and advocated a democratic system based on one presidential and legislative vote per state. Eventually, Paterson's New Jersey Plan was combined with others and morphed into the bicameral system in place today, with a Senate and House of Representatives—and Paterson himself became New Jersey's second governor.

The township of Paterson was first founded shortly thereafter in 1791 by the Society for Establishing Useful Manufacturers, a trade group sponsored by not-yet-president Alexander Hamilton and charged with making use of the vast natural resources in the northern reaches of New Jersey. Hamilton had a vision for the area surrounding the Passaic Falls that included factories, mills, and shipping facilities that would supply the state and region with both raw materials and manufactured goods for sale and trade. His intention was to turn the area around the falls into a "National Manufactory" for the fledgling republic.

After a couple of false starts and a series of political and logistical setbacks, Hamilton's National Manufactory finally began operating in earnest by the dawn of the 18th century. Thanks in large part to the power generated by the falls, Paterson found itself becoming a magnet for merchants, engineers, inventors, craftspeople, and budding capitalists of all stripes, and in a few short decades evolved into the region's chief center for industry and technological innovation.

Diversity and Invention

Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, ambitious individuals from across the region and around the world made their way to Paterson to take advantage of the great opportunities generated by the city's high concentration of industry and manufacturing. As the nation spread westward, machinery, textiles, tools, military equipment, and other supplies were produced in quantity in Paterson's mills and factories, employing thousands and turning the town into a cosmopolitan blend of ethnic and immigrant groups. The English, German, and Irish were the first to put down roots, and they were followed by Italians and Eastern Europeans. By 1900, the population hovered around 105,000 people, more than half of whom were first- or second-generation Americans.

In 1914, inventor extraordinaire Thomas Edison devised and constructed one of the world's first hydroelectric power plants at Passaic Falls, harnessing the falls' power more effectively than ever and ushering in a new age of hydroelectric power. Edison's plant operated continuously until 1969, and was restored in 1984. Today, the plant is still churning out juice for 11,000 citizens of Paterson.

The area's abundant hydroelectric power and atmosphere of progress and experimentation fueled much more than just large-scale manufacturing, however. Paterson and its surrounding area was the cradle of such world-changing inventions as the transistor, the electric light, the Colt revolver, the petroleum engine, motion pictures, and audio recording.

Silk City

One of the more interesting chapters in Paterson's industrial history is the emergence of silk production as a major component of the city's economic development. By the late 1800s, nearly half of the silk produced in the United States came from Paterson.

The production of silk in Paterson began with a few small mills established by English merchants in the early 1800s. By the late 19th century, Paterson was home to more than 100 silk-related businesses, and thousands of workers—many of whom were Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia—who handled everything from production of raw silk thread to dyeing the finished material. An equally robust sub-industry existed to produce and maintain the machinery needed to clean, prepare, weave, and print on the various silk products.

It all came to a screeching halt in February of 1913, however, when some 25,000 silk workers from across the industry spectrum went on strike to protest poor wages, hazardous working conditions, inhumane hours, and child labor. According to author and historian Steve Golin, "The silk strike that began in February 1913 was one in a series of industrial conflicts that erupted in the eastern United States in the period from 1909 to 1913. New immigrants from southern and eastern Europe took the lead in these industrial conflicts. When they struck, these new immigrants tended to form all-inclusive, industry-wide unions that cut across traditional lines of craft and sex."

The strike in Paterson lasted seven months, and while it was a landmark in American labor history, it effectively hobbled the city's silk industry, which never quite recovered. Many smaller mills and silk-related businesses had been hit hard by floods and economic recessions in previous years, and the workers' strike—combined with the growing popularity of synthetic fabrics for clothes and upholstery —dealt a mortal wound to those worst affected. Some of the struggling smaller businesses were bought up and merged with much larger companies, others found another niche producing parachute silk during the World Wars, and still others made the jump from natural fibers to synthetics with great success, but dozens of mills and small factories closed. With their passing, the silk era in Paterson began to wane.

The Aviation City

Both during and after the textile industry's Golden Age, Paterson's industrial minds were tirelessly exploring in other directions. Always a center for heavy manufacturing and machinery production, locomotive engines were a lynchpin of the city's heavy machinery production, and Paterson put its steel to the test during World War II, when the city's factories became key producers of the Curtiss-Wright aircraft engine. The engines played a key role not just in the war effort, but in aviation history —Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in a plane powered by a 200 Horsepower J-1 air-cooled Whirlwind Engine custom-made in Paterson. During the war years, the aeronautics industry in Paterson employed some 25,000 people and produced more than 120,000 types of aircraft—earning Paterson another nickname: The Aviation City.

Preserving Paterson

Despite the historical significance of much of Paterson, the city's historic industrial districts have periodically been threatened by a different kind of progress than the one they helped usher in: real estate development. After the fade-out of the silk industry and a spate of arson-related fires, large portions of the city's old Mill District were left in ruins. What wasn't burned or torn down was high on the list of developers and urban renewal enthusiasts who wanted to see Paterson's riverfront become something other than a post-industrial wasteland.

Others objected to such plans, however, and through the tireless efforts of preservationists like the late Mary Ellen Kramer and the Paterson Friends of the Great Falls, former President Gerald Ford finally agreed to designate the city's old Mill District a national historic landmark in 1976.

The city and state have their work cut out for them, however. Years of neglect and vandalism—including the aforementioned arson—have rendered much of the old Mill District ruinous, and the issue of residential development is never far from anyone's mind.

Paterson Today

Elsewhere however, Paterson's residential market is growing by leaps and bounds—and like many other areas with great proximity to urban centers, it has become a magnet for singles and families looking to get away from the city without really getting away.

According to Barbara Caldwell, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker's Susani Realty office in Paterson, "Paterson is the third-largest city in New Jersey and a county seat. It's a multicultural city, where ethnic groups from all over have settled—we have a little bit of everybody here—and a lots of tourist attractions."

But mostly, says Caldwell, "It's all about location. We're about 35 minutes from New York City, and we're right on the Garden State Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike. Route 4 takes you straight from Paterson to the George Washington Bridge. So the proximity to New York is a big draw."

Price is also a big draw for Paterson, which, according to Caldwell, offers more bang for the homebuyer's buck. "Home prices here in Passaic County are much more affordable than they can be in Bergen County," she says, but adds that "the prices have definitely escalated in the last two years or so. The average price of a single-family home is about $250,000, and a two-bedroom condo runs about $180,000 or $190,000. The market has seen the same kind of property value increases as other, more urbanized areas—prices have definitely been on the upswing. There's a lot of new construction going on here, and a lot of people from New York moving into Paterson, as well as from other areas of the state."

What it boils down to, says Caldwell, is a simple issue of supply and demand. "There's not enough houses for people who want to buy—it's a seller's market, and with the escalation of prices, a lot of sellers aren't anxious to move because of what they'd have to pay to get into a new property. They can make money on any property they sell, but then they'd have to spend it all on a new property. But it's a good market right now."

David Garry is a freelance writer living in New York City.