Dutch settlers were early attracted to the great cataract on the Passaic which had been described to them by the Indians. In 1679 they obtained the first tract of land within the present bounds of Paterson. Many of the Dutch pioneers bore names still common in the city. For more than a century the Falls were merely an attraction for visitors, and the settlement remained small.
Then in 1791 Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, helped form the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures (S.U.M.). The New Jersey Legislature voted the company perpetual exemption from county and township taxes and gave it the right to hold property, improve rivers, build canals, and raise $100,000 by lottery. The company selected, from a number of sites offered, the Great Falls of the Passaic River, which at that time had "no more than ten houses." Hamilton had favored this place, which he had seen during the Revolution, but he "did not make public this idea of his at the time, for fear that some of the men who did not live near the Passaic Falls might not contribute." Money was set aside by the S.U.M. for factories, and Major Pierre L Enfant, designer of Washington, D. C, was hired to build a system of raceways.
Paterson grew out of the Society's 700 acres above and below the Passaic Falls and was named for William Paterson, then Governor of New Jersey. It was a company town, and its workers began to exhibit signs of dissatisfaction. S.U.M. records tells of "disorderly" calico printers as early as 1794. This resulted in the closing of the mill the first lock-out in American history and the forerunner of a long string of industrial struggles.
The town continued to grow as an industrial center. When one industry failed, others replaced it. About 1825 Paterson became known as the "Cotton Town of the United States." Oxen are reputed to have provided power for the first cotton spinning here in a mill known as the Bull House.
In 1828 Paterson gave America its first factory strike when cotton workers quit their looms to protest a change in the lunch hour. The owners had asserted that the health and comfort of child workers would be improved by a 1 o'clock dinner instead of a meal at 12, making a more equal division of the day. The employees countered with a surprise demand for reduction of working hours from 13-1/2 to 12. Carpenters, masons and mechanics of Paterson also walked out, the first recorded instance of a sympathy strike in the United States. Although the strike was lost, it made a strong impression on the community, and the owners afterward restored the 12 o'clock lunch hour.
In 1831 the Morris Canal, penetrating the coal fields of Pennsylvania, was opened. The railroad came to town a year later when the tracks of the Paterson and Hudson River Railroad were laid. Both the canal and the railroad gave impetus to the town's development. In 1836 Samuel Colt established his mill, and the original Colt repeating revolvers were manufactured. In 1837 John Clark's modest machine shop produced one of the earliest American locomotives, the Sandusky, which was fashioned after an imported English model. Within 44 years 5,871 engines were made in Paterson and shipped to all parts of North and South America.
Silk manufacturing was permanently introduced to Paterson in 1840 when a plant under the supervision of John Ryle was established in the Old Gun Mill. By 1850 the new industry surpassed cotton and Paterson became known as the "Silk City." One year later the town was incorporated, and by 1860 its population reached approximately 19,600. Attracted by the rising silk industry, immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Italy, and Russia poured into Paterson, so that by 1870 the city had enough skilled workers to handle two-thirds of the raw silk imported into the United States.
Many of the foreign workers had been forced to flee Europe for championing various liberal causes. When, in 1886, conditions in local silk mills became unbearable, they led in calling a three-hour strike. The next important strike was a three-week walk-out in 1902, led by McQueen and Grossman, two Philosophic Anarchists.
That year brought a series of major disasters to the city. A fire started on February 8 and destroyed almost 500 buildings, including the City Hall and the entire business section. It was halted a mile from its starting point with the help of Jersey City and Hackensack firemen, who fought the blaze from roofs. Ruins of the fire had barely cooled when on March 2 the swollen Passaic River engulfed the lower portions of the city and swept away bridges, homes and buildings, causing damage of more than $1,000,000. Several months later a tornado struck the city, uprooting trees and houses and crippling vital services.
The silk industry reached its peak in 1910 when 25,000 workers in 350 large plants wove close to 30 percent of the silk manufactured in this country. Three years later all mills came to a standstill when workers, under the leadership of the Industrial Workers of the World, struck for the maintenance of the two-loom system (two looms for each worker to tend) against the owners plans for an increased number.
The workers walked out on February 15; the employers raised the American flag on their empty mills and declared a lock-out. Carlo Tresca, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, "Big Bill" Haywood, and John Reed, the young Harvard poet, came to lead the picket lines. When one picketer was killed, Haywood led 15,000 workers in the funeral procession. School children struck in sympathy with their parents, and gigantic mass meetings were held in the neighboring borough of Haledon, whose residents were largely sympathetic. Reed, who was jailed during the walk-out, staged the famous "Paterson Pageant" in Manhattan's Madison Square Garden for the benefit of the strikers. It was the greatest strike in Paterson history, but the workers went back to their looms in July, defeated.
In 1924, 20,000 workers waged an unsuccessful fight against the four loom system. Manufacturers, blaming labor troubles, began hunting for sites with lower taxes, cheaper power, and more docile workers. By 1925 the exodus had begun. There were 700 plants then, but the factories were much smaller than formerly.
Although Paterson is still the largest single silk-producing center in the country, the industry has been seriously curtailed. Reasons for the decline are: antiquated plants that are unable to compete with newer mills of the South, Pennsylvania, and New England; the introduction of rayon; and the break-down of large units into small "cockroach" shops. Today 4,000 workers weave about 12 percent of the Nation's silk.
The growth of the dyeing industry in Paterson has offset the decline of silk manufacturing. Some of the largest plants in America, processing 70 percent of the Nation's silk and rayon, are here. Proximity to the New York market and the soft waters of the Passaic River led to the establishment of this industry. Its 15,000 workers emerged from the 1933 strike with the Dyers Local 1733, the largest union in New Jersey. Inspired by the collective-bargaining clause of the National Industrial Recovery Act, the strike was the first successful one in many years.
Nearby Towns: Clifton City • East Rutherford Boro • Franklin Lakes Boro • Ho-Ho-Kus Boro • Maywood Boro • Montclair Twp • Nutley Twp • Paramus Boro • Passaic City • Rutherford Boro • Totowa Boro • Verona Township • Wallington Boro • Washington Twp •