Sunday, March 27, 2011

Great Falls


The Great Falls of the Passaic! What heart does not beat fast at those words? The relentless power of a river of water plunging into the depth of the rocky gorge, and finding speedy relief in the still waters that run deep alongside the Silk City.

Helen and I went out there last Sunday and drenched ourselves in the spray while I snapped a few pics with my trusty digital SLR. It was a good day. The heavy rains some ten days earlier had brought the Passaic River above flood stage upstream. While water level had come down from its peak, we still witnessed the greatest flow we'd ever seen over the mighty cataract.

For those who have not had the opportunity, let me describe the scene. Photographs tend to be confusing because of the two sharp turns in the river. Flowing northeast from the Little Falls a few miles away, the river suddenly drops into a deep gorge that channels it around a sharp turn to the south, and then upon emerging it once again turns northeast. So there are two near-180 turns in the stream.

At no point can you get a simple head-on look at the falls. The classic view looks up the gorge, within which you see almost a side view of the falls. Standing on the high ground facing the falls, you see a river coming at you only to disappear into a spray, and you need to peer over the edge to see what happens to it.

But here, below, the best general view I have ever seen of the Great Falls. All you need to do is go up in an airplane. This was taken by Jack Boucher for the Historic American Buildings Survey, around 1971.

The photo is one of a set documenting the hydro-electric power station just left of center, which was built in 1914 and is still in use with new turbines installed in 1986.

The dam above it, near the bridge, was built in 1838 to maintain a flow of water to a system of raceways that turned water wheels at a host of mills. The start of those water channels can be seen at lower left, running alongside the road and then turning to the bottom of the image. The dam still serves to direct some of the river into the hydro station.

Paterson is a fine place for industrial archaeology. Inspired by the potential of the falls, Alexander Hamilton established the Society for the Establishment of Usefull Manufactures (called S U M) in 1791. The original system of raceways was designed by Pierre L'Enfant (soon to be the planner of Washington DC) and Peter Colt. The system was designated a National Historic Mechanical and Civil Engineering Landmark in 1977. For more details see The Great Falls Raceway and Power System (PDF).

Here's the classic view of the falls. Everyone takes this shot.

Those bridges! Two of them: look close. The arched bridge in front, built in 1888, has been part of the classic view for as long as anyone has been alive. Generations have walked over it for the thrill. The falls would not look right without the arched bridge. An old Paterson paper had an engraving of this view on the front page between the Gothic letters of its name, the Morning Call.

There used to be, just upstream, a little suspension bridge that carried nothing but a huge pipe across the gorge. Around 1985, the locations were swapped: the pipe was placed onto the 1888 footbridge, and a new footbridge was built where the pipe had been. The new footbridge is a little closer to the falls, and the big pipe no longer partially blocks the view.

Here's the other almost classic view.

The hydro plant kills any idea of this being a pastoral waterfall in the middle of nowhere, but on the other hand from this angle you can see more of the waterfall itself. Look how far back it goes!

The picnic tables in the foreground look nice, but you can't go there. That level is blocked off with warning signs. I don't know what happened. They haven't even removed the trash cans.

Here is the upper level of the Passaic River looking downstream at the falls. The viewpoint is near the left side of the aerial photograph.

In the foreground, water is rushing over the 1838 dam, some of it flowing to the right into the hydro plant. Ahead is the falls, but from here you get little clue to how far it drops. A few S U M brick buildings stand on the far shore.

The white-painted Hinchliffe Stadium (1932) behind them was home to the New York Black Yankees from 1934 to 1945 (except 1938). It was used for events and high school sports until 1997, when the city of Paterson could no longer afford to maintain it. Its future is uncertain. What a location!

Two bridges.

The spray was good, and the sun was behind us.

We went over the bridge. Helen walked fast. I stopped to look. 

I could not get this into any one photograph, but the rainbow in the spray formed an entire half circle down to somewhere under the bridge. And it was a double rainbow too.

I was getting pretty wet standing on the bridge.

There's the river coming toward us. You can see the dam up there, and the hydro plant is just visible through the spray under the bridges.

There's a big rock dividing the falls in two. It's easier to see in the rainbow pictures up above. The rock looks like it's going to go any moment but it's been there for hundreds of years. The Lenape called it the spirit of the falls.

Still getting wet!

We're at the outside of the hairpin bend. Suddenly the picture is clearer! There were ducks swimming around here but I almost missed them in the image. You can see part of one at the bottom edge, center.

Look at the tiny figures in the distance right under the arched bridge. They're getting the classic view.

Up above is Garret Mountain, the north end of a 14-mile ridge of basalt known variously as the First Mountain or Watchung Ridge, and locally as South Mountain near where I live. We went up there afterwards but I didn't take pictures. It's a county park. Great views of Paterson, and all the way to Manhattan.

Water! Rocks! Whooo!

The S U M hydro-electric plant seen from above. The end of the gorge is so straight it looks hand-cut but I don't think it's been "improved". This is the same type of rock as the Palisades, and their edge is pretty vertical too. On the other hand the cliff near the power station does look cut back, and notice the sloped concrete wall from the cliff top to the roof of the building. The smashed windows are surprising for a building very much in use. The white scale is mineral from the spray.

The old footbridge with the pipe on it, and the hydro station. The water emerges from the gorge and takes a sharp turn to the left.

Next time: Old pictures of the Great Falls. You'll see old timey stuff, and the pipe suspension bridge, and me looking horribly young.

1 comment:

  1. (From Jeff:) Oh, man, did you hit it. My father was from Paterson; my aunt (nearly 100) still lives near there and I remember the Morning Call's nameplate. Thanks.