History of Paterson, New Jersey

Paterson, New Jersey was originally founded in 1792 by Alexander Hamilton through the Society for the Establishment of Useful Manufactures (S.U.M.) as the first step in implementing his plans for a national hub of industry. For Hamilton, the nation’s first Treasury Secretary, the City of Paterson would become the spark igniting a new form of industrial productivity — adding wealth, independence, and economic security to a fledgling democratic nation.

Not unlike other industrial models to follow, the roaring waterfall called the Great Falls and the potential power it could generate made Paterson an ideal location for what Hamilton envisioned as his “national manufactory.” At 77 feet, the Great Falls is the second highest waterfall east of the Mississippi River (second only to Niagara Falls) and is currently a proposed National Landmark Historic District.

Hamilton’s vision to create an urban center that channeled the power of the Great Falls into an industrial powerhouse is what turned Paterson into the nation’s first planned industrial city. Over the years, Paterson became a major center for industrial firsts: the first water-powered cotton spinning mill (1793), the first continuous roll paper (1812), the Colt Revolver (1836), the Rogers Locomotive Works which helped fuel western expansion through the transcontinental railroad (1837), and the Holland Submarine — making underwater navigation possible (1878).

Paterson is still known today as the “Silk City” because prominent industrialist John Ryle successfully proved that weaving silk could be a profitable business and set out to build international recognition for his products. In Ryle’s day, Paterson hummed with the silk industry and was an international melting pot thanks to a constant influx of workers and immigrants from around the globe. As was often the case, however, this steady hum of productivity didn’t necessarily fare very well for factory workers and their families. In fact, by 1913, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) helped stage the “Paterson Silk Strikes”— fighting for an eight-hour work day and other concessions from factory owners and prominent industrialists. While unsuccessful at the time, these strikes helped forge the beginnings of what would become the modern labor movement, culminating in the end of child labor practices, decent working conditions for all workers, and ultimately the 40-hour work week.

Paterson remained an important industrial center through the 1900s. During this time period, one of Paterson’s major success stories was the Wright Aeronautical Corporation whose aircraft engines helped Charles Lindbergh make the first Trans-Atlantic flight possible. In fact, many Paterson factories contributed to the production of aircraft engines up through World War II, helping the U.S. to secure victory.

Smokestacks in Paterson at sunset

Smokestacks in Paterson at sunset.