The Great Falls at Paterson, New Jersey

Great Falls of the Passaic River, Paterson, New Jersey (Engraving after a drawing made by Thomas Pownall in the 1750s)

In 1778, right in the middle of the American Revolution, Alexander Hamilton took George Washington to see the Great Falls of the Passaic River in northern New Jersey. There the river drops 77 feet in a torrent 280 feet wide. The visionary Hamilton saw in this watercourse a dream of plenty: cheap energy to build industry and free the nation from foreign markets.

Three years after the war, in 1791, Hamilton lined up a group of patriots, industrialists, and financiers to form the “Society for Establishing Usefull Manufactures,” otherwise known as the S.U.M. It was America’s first industrial community. The S.U.M. hired Pierre L’Enfant – the military engineer who laid out the plans for Washington, D.C. – to build the first raceway and harness the Passaic River’s energy.

L’Enfant came up with a plan involving a series of radiating roads and a grand aqueduct that would channel water to the mills. The aqueduct would span the ravine, wind around hills, be large enough for barge traffic, and have a towpath on one side and a carriageway on the other. By 1793, the S.U.M. was fed up with this ornate plan and fired L’Enfant, replacing him with Peter Colt (1744-1824). 

Colt had little engineering experience but great stores of common sense, which he had demonstrated during the war when he was Gen. Washington’s Quartermaster for Eastern Connecticut and also his occasional translator when French was needed. Colt had built a shipping business that traded with the West Indies and was serving as Treasurer of Connecticut when he got the call to Paterson. Colt simply dammed up the ravine at one end, creating a reservoir, and sent the water into a single raceway down the hillside to the site of the first water-powered mill.

As Superintendent of the S.U.M., Colt also helped found the city of Paterson. He settled there permanently some time after 1794.

His son Roswell Lyman Colt (1779-1856) joined the S.U.M. in 1814 and eventually spent decades as governor, overseeing many expansions and improvements to the power system. He helped his cousin Samuel Colt start up his first firearms factory, which later moved to Hartford. He married Margaret Oliver, with whom he had 14 children, and spent his life in Paterson, where he was known in some quarters as the “Great Colt.”

Energy from the Great Falls raceway and water power system fostered countless industrial innovations, including the Colt revolver, the Holland submarine, the Curtiss-Wright aircraft engine, and the textiles and silks that made Paterson famous as “Silk City.” The system remains a monument to the finest engineering, planning, and architectural works of the early United States.

Sources:

  • Fries, Russell I., “The Great Falls Raceway and Power System: National Historic Mechanical and Civil Engineering Landmark,” paper for the American Society of Civil Engineers, May 20, 1977.
  • Nelson, William & Shriner, Charles Anthony, History of Paterson and Its Environs (the Silk City): Historical- Genealogical – Biographical (Lewis Historical Publishing, 1920).

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