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Hip-hop hero Alexander Hamilton makes once-downtrodden Paterson, N.J., a place you'll want to visit

On July 10, 1778, Gen. George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette joined Alexander Hamilton, Washington's most trusted aide, in what would become Paterson, at the spot where the Passaic River plummets 77 feet over basalt cliffs.

They shared a picnic of cold ham, tongue and biscuits. Hamilton was so impressed by the Great Falls that 13 years later, as the first U.S. secretary of the Treasury, he chose the site for his Society for the Establishment of Useful Manufactures (SUM), America's first planned industrial center.

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On Nov. 7, 2011, the National Park Service recognized the area's natural beauty and historical significance by creating the 52-acre Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park, among the newer parks being celebrated in the agency's centennial year.

"We all know about Philadelphia and the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776," said Darren Boch, superintendent of the park. "But on July 2, 1792, Paterson was where America declared its economic independence, where we set out to become an industrial power no longer dependent on England."

With Hamilton in the lead, the SUM bought land and built the country's first waterpower, setting the stage for a century and a half of industrial preeminence.

A park 'in progress'

The park service brochure calls Great Falls "a new national park area 'in progress,' with limited services and programs."

True enough, but with the falls to view, raceways to follow, the newly refurbished Mary Ellen Kramer Park again reachable by a bridge across the falls, the Paterson Museum, rich in local lore and artifacts, and Lambert Castle, a silk magnate's magnificent estate, to visit, there's plenty to fill a day.

And, of course, there's Hamilton.

In April, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew announced that the plan to replace Hamilton on the $10 bill with African American abolitionist Harriet Tubman had been reversed and that Tubman would instead replace Andrew Jackson on the $20.

And in June, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster hip-hop musical “Hamilton”  won 11 Tony Awards. Tickets continue to be a hot commodity.

It's all Hamilton, all the time, and the hard-luck city of Paterson is basking in some reflected glory.

A statue of Alexander Hamilton, center, overlooks the Great Falls, left, in Paterson, N.J. A stained-glass windown in Lambert Castle memorializes a deceased daughter of Catholina Lambert.
A statue of Alexander Hamilton, center, overlooks the Great Falls, left, in Paterson, N.J. A stained-glass windown in Lambert Castle memorializes a deceased daughter of Catholina Lambert. (Barry Winiker / Getty Images center; Karl Zimmermann left and right)

The Great Falls

There's no better place to start a tour of Paterson than at the Overlook, with its imposing 1905 bronze statue of Hamilton staring proudly at the Great Falls. Turn your back on Hamilton and you face those falls.

Nearby is the brick SUM powerhouse, built in 1914 when hydroelectric power supplanted the extensive system of raceways and waterwheels that had made Paterson a great industrial city.

It still earns its keep generating electricity, and it enhances — rather than detracts from — the scene, a happy marriage of industrial architecture and natural beauty.

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At the modest Welcome Center across McBride Avenue, owned by the National Park Service but staffed with help from the Paterson Museum, you can shop for books and memorabilia dedicated to Hamilton.

If you thought the Hamilton statue looked spiffy, you were right, and a time-lapse video at the center, with Miranda's hip-hop "Hamilton Mixtape" as background music, shows the cleaning and restoration done in 2013.

Alternating with the video is a clever, short "whiteboard" show in which important Paterson sites are sketched and colored as you watch.

You can also pick up brochures — the park service's standard-issue map and introduction and, more useful, a large, fold-out map of a Mill Mile walking tour keyed to 10 sites in the Great Falls area.

The map is full of information, but you can learn more by uploading an app or calling (973) 582-0654 on your cellphone, which lets you access a recording of the tour.

Paterson is metaphorically if not literally in our backyard, so my wife, Laurel, and I have visited often, seeing the area's ups and downs. We're always eager to get close to the falls, surpassed in size east of the Mississippi only by Niagara, so we started a recent visit by walking up McBride Avenue from the Overlook to the newly reopened bridge.

Where Spruce Street morphs into McBride, we were especially aware that this is an urban park. For a safe visit, the park service brochure advises, "Be careful crossing busy streets."

But on the bridge, we were in nature's embrace: the roar, the spray and the green smell of water.

Kramer Park is the likely site of the Washington-Lafayette-Hamilton luncheon, "probably the most important picnic in American history," Boch said.

Adjacent is Hinchliffe Stadium, newly incorporated into the historical park. Deteriorated Art Deco ticket booths are to be restored, and dozens of medallions  depicting Olympic sports ring the facade.

Hinchliffe’s greatest significance may be as one of a handful of extant stadiums that hosted Negro League teams, in its case the New York Black Yankees and the New York Cubans.

The faded sign for Libby's speaks eloquently of the restaurant's long history. It stands atop the 1846 gatehouse for the raceways that originally powered Paterson's industries.
The faded sign for Libby's speaks eloquently of the restaurant's long history. It stands atop the 1846 gatehouse for the raceways that originally powered Paterson's industries. (Karl Zimmermann)

A stop at Libby's

We had an important choice to make once back across the bridge.

"Look how they've preserved that wonderfully faded old sign for 'Libby's, since 1936,' " I said to Laurel.

The sign, perched atop an 1846 gatehouse, shows a giant "Texas wiener" and an arrow pointing the way.

"I'm sure Libby's still exists," Laurel said, and so it does, half a block away and as  friendly and old shoe as you would hope from the sign.

We had hot dogs "all the way," smothered in a secret sauce that's a Paterson tradition and washed down with draft birch beer.

Then we walked the path along the upper raceway, which took us to the Paterson Museum in the 1835 Rogers Locomotive & Machine Works.

Outside are two Rogers steam locomotives, one of which helped build the Panama Canal. Rogers was one of five Paterson manufacturers in the latter 19th century when the city was the country's preeminent locomotive builder.

The city's other distinctions are showcased inside the museum. Through November is "Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America," a traveling exhibit from the New-York Historical Society.

Rogers locomotives are displayed outside the former Rogers Locomotive and Machine Works erecting shop. No. 299 helped build the Panama Canal.
Rogers locomotives are displayed outside the former Rogers Locomotive and Machine Works erecting shop. No. 299 helped build the Panama Canal. (Karl Zimmermann)

An exhibit honors Paterson resident Larry Doby, the Hall of Famer who in 1947 joined the Cleveland Indians, the first African American to play in the American League just months after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers of the National League.

There's an engine built by the Wright Aeronautical Corp., which operated five factories in the area and produced the engine that powered the Spirit of St Louis across the Atlantic.

Looms and other machinery tell of the turn of the last century when weaving and dying made Paterson the nation's "Silk City."

For more on the silk story, we took a 10-minute drive up Garret Mountain to Lambert Castle, Catholina Lambert's extravagant, crenelated home built in 1892 with fortunes made from silk and now beautifully restored and run by the Passaic County Historical Society.

Lambert called his elegantly furnished mansion Belle Vista, but the 31 years he lived there were engulfed by tragedy: Seven of his eight children predeceased him. Florence, his favorite, died at age 24 and is memorialized by a large, lovely stained-glass window in the grand staircase.

Paterson is the SUM,  locomotives, silk and much more. And behind it all? Alexander Hamilton.

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