When George Washington was elected president in 1790, he chose Alexander Hamilton to be the first Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton served in this capacity until 1795 and during this time he set our modern banking system, establishing the federal budget process, and established the Bank of the United States. At the time, there were five securities traded on Wall Street—one was the stock of the Bank of the United States, one was for the stock of the Bank of New York, and the other three were U.S. government securities. Trade in business securities was in shambles because our country was bankrupt due to debts incurred fighting the Revolutionary War.
Hamilton was, however, a self-made man who had once pulled himself from financial depravity and after the Revolutionary War ended, Alexander Hamilton began promoting his views on the economic needs of the new nation. He was concerned over the lack of industry in the United States which were prohibited by English law during colonial times, but were now vital to the new nation’s survival. Hamilton believed that a strong industrial system was the best way to help the United States gain financial independence and become a world presence. He firmly believed that the United States could raise itself to a level equal to the economic prowess of the other major nations in Europe. To this end, he formed an investment group called the Society of Useful Manufactures whose aim was to elevate the manufacturing industries of the new nation.
In 1792, this investment group founded Paterson, New Jersey (named for William Paterson), to become the national hub of manufacturing. Centered around the Great Falls of the Passaic River, Patterson was a prime site to harness the primary source of industrial power in the 18th Century, falling water. Reaching 77 feet high and 300 feet across, Paterson’s Great Falls sends 500,000 to 1 million gallons of water cascading from the Passaic River every minute.
Patterson is America’s first planned industrial city, and it is at Paterson that pioneering methods for harnessing water power for industrial use came to America. Paterson set up the young United States upon to become an economic player on the world stage.
Paterson’s early years were marred by financial and personnel difficulties. Over-speculation on the part of Society of Useful Manufactures’ directors, and a temperamental civil engineer (Pierre Charles L’Enfant – designer of Washington, D.C.), hired to design the city, plagued the enterprise. Despite these problems, the first cotton mill was built shortly after the land was purchased. When the first water raceway was built in early 1794, the power of the river was first used, and a second cotton mill opened. The town boomed during the War of 1812, and then suffered a setback after the war ended, as foreign textiles became more easily obtained.
Later, more raceways provided more extensive access to water, allowing for more mills to be built. As the years progressed, manufacturing in Paterson became more diversified – in addition to cotton and wool textiles, Paterson began building railroad locomotives, making paper, and producing rope, hemp, and even firearms. This diversification proved to be key to Paterson’s success, although all these industries were affected by changing levels of supply and demand that influenced all areas of life. Opportunities for workers were further affected by influxes of immigrants from Ireland, England, France, Russia, Poland, Germany, and other parts of the world.
The height of Paterson’s industrial strength came with the processing of silk in the 1890s. Although there had been silk mills in Paterson since the mid-1800s, by the end of the 19th century, the silk industry had earned the city its nickname, “Silk City”. In 1913, Paterson became a focal point of the labor movement when silk mill workers struck for six months, demanding improved working conditions and an eight-hour workday. Although it failed, the 1913 Silk Strike focused national attention on the plight of mill workers and eventually contributed to later improvements to working conditions nationwide.
As happened with most other Northeastern industrial cities, Paterson’s fortunes continued on an uneven course through the twentieth century. The Great Depression hit the city hard, as did the manufacturing slump that came after World War II. The post-World War II years would see most of the mills and factories shuttering their doors, even as more workers arrived; some were African-Americans from the South, others came from other parts of the world.
On November 7, 2011, Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park was dedicated as the 397th unit in the National Park System.