By Richard Cowen

Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh on Monday unveiled plans to a new Passaic River walkway that will expand the Paterson Great Falls National Park and allow visitors a closer look at the relics of America’s first planned industrial center.

The $7.9 million walkway will wind down along the banks just below the falls, where the first water-powered mills sprung up in the late 18th Century to fulfill Alexander Hamilton’s vision of America that would produce its own goods, instead of having to rely on Britain.

When it opens in 2024, the walkway will bring visitors within photo-click distance of the ruins of some of those mills, which over generations produced wood, guns, locomotives, textiles, and laid the groundwork for the American Labor Movement.

“I want visitors to say that Paterson is the birthplace of the American Dream,” Sayegh said at a news conference at City Hall. “Immigration, innovation, industrialization. That’s the American Dream.”

Rep. Bill J. Pascrell Jr., D-9th District, a former mayor of Paterson, said the Great Falls represents not just the power of nature, but the power of workers to organize.

“This was the birthplace of the labor movement,” Pascrell said. “It’s where our fathers, our uncles worked there. This is our history.”

The project is scheduled to break ground next month and is being funded through a mix of federal, state, and local sources: $1.85 million from the National Park Service, $1.5 million in COVID relief funds from the state; $1.3 million from the Passaic County Open Space trust fund, and $2.8 million in city funds, officials said.

When it is complete, the walkway will cover about 2.5 acres and take visitors deeper into the park to what is commonly known as the ATP property. That site, which has been fenced off for decades, contains the ruins of the mill where the Colt .45 pistol was manufactured.

The Great Falls has long been Paterson’s greatest asset, and the Sayegh administration is hoping to capitalize on Paterson’s history with an ambitious redevelopment plan centered around the national park. At the edge of park, the city has committed $94 million to the redevelopment of Hinchliffe Stadium, one of the few arenas still standing where Negro League baseball was played.

“What we’re trying to do is harness the power of the Great Falls once again,” Sayegh said.

Renovation of the stadium is well underway, with plans for a restaurant, exhibition spaces, and senior housing with a parking deck next door. The hope is that when the project is finished next year, Hinchliffe will regain its place as the city’s sports palace—and attract private investment to the area.

Although the Paterson Great Falls National Park attracts hundreds of visitors a day, one of its major features has been closed to the public for almost a year. Last August, the park inspected a footbridge over the chasm of the Great Falls and declared it unsafe.

Not only did the footbridge offer a dramatic view from 77-foot chasm to the river below, it connected one side of the park to the other. Once it was closed, visitors had to take the long way around the park to the observation decks to see the falls up close.

The closure touched off a dispute between the National Park Service and the Passaic Valley Water Commission over who should pay to fix the footbridge. Ed Smyk, the Passaic County historian, said he sifted through the records and determined that the Passaic County Water Commission built the current footbridge in 1984 and is therefore responsible for its upkeep. Smyk said he shared his research in a letter to the mayor, Sayegh.

Darren Boch, the park superintendent, said it is estimated that the footbridge would cost $600,000 to fix. He said the National Park Service was willing to put up a grant for $300,000, but the Passaic Valley Water Commission so far hasn’t committed anything to the project. Boch met with Sayegh after the press conference on Monday to discuss funding the footbridge repair.

We don’t want to spend more time rankling over who owns it,” Boch said.