Paterson's Great Falls: A national park with black appeal

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From the Grand Canyon in Arizona to Shenandoah in Virginia, there are 58 National Parks in the United States. However, surveys indicate that African-Americans are the least likely ethnic group to visit the National Park system.

Jeffery Jones, Mayor of Paterson, New Jersey, says that he hopes the inauguration of Paterson’s Great Falls into the National Park system will help to boost tourism to the urban park and spark a renaissance for the former industrial city.

“We have contributed greatly to this nation’s success. And folks didn’t know about it…. The possibilities become endless if you have the table set appropriately and I think the national park helps us to set the table.”

Paterson’s manufacturing history is intertwined with the natural wonder that isThe Great Falls. Known as America’s first planned industrial city; Paterson’s founder, Alexander Hamilton, saw The Great Falls, which are the countries second largest east of the Mississippi River, as a source of energy that could be harnessed to power surrounding factories.

Two hundred years after Hamilton first laid eyes on the falls, manufacturers that made their name in Paterson like Colt firearms have largely moved on. Faced with a diminished tax base, Paterson has decided that the falls are more than just a natural relic of the city’s past. The Great Falls and the surrounding historical area will play a key role in propelling Paterson into the future.

“The incorporation of your history into your future can be relatively seamless and provide people with an opportunity to go back in time historically and at the same time have all the benefits of modern day technology,” said Mayor Jones as he conducted a tour of the parkland via an old fashioned trolley.

Paterson made national headlines in September when President Obama visited the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.

When The Great Falls are officially transferred into the federal park system on November 7th, Paterson hopes to step onto a platform which will highlight its historical significance including landmarks which intersect with African-American history. Just above the Great Falls lie the ruins of Hinchliffe Stadium.
Built in 1932, Hinchliffe is a relic from the days of Negro League baseball. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, it is one of three remaining Negro League home stadiums. In its 65 years of active use, Hinchliffe was the site of numerous types of sporting events from auto racing to boxing. A business experiment of sorts, lead to it being used by Negro League teams in the 1930’s, like the New York Black Yankees.

“When white Paterson teams would play against black teams, there was a noticeable spike in attendance,” said Brian LoPinto, co-founder of friends of Hinchliffe stadium. LoPinto grew up two blocks from Hinchliffe. He started Friend’s of Hinchliffe Stadium in 2002 in an effort to save the stadium from demolition.

According to LoPinto, Paterson was a baseball town. Fans at Hinchliffe who might have been predominantly white, based upon census records for the city at the time, thought that the level of play was elevated when white hometown teams played against black teams.

“The promoters saw an opportunity to test things out. They brought to Paterson what was called the Colored Championship of the Nation,” said LoPinto. The Colored Championship of the Nation, played at Hinchliffe in 1933, was essentially the Negro League’s World Series.

Many Negro League stars played at Hinchliffe, including Larry Doby who went on to be the second black player in Major League Baseball. Hinchliffe was originally conceived as a stadium for high school sports and was owned by the local school board. Doby, who grew up in Paterson played baseball and football as a student at Hinchliffe.

Not too far from Hinchliffe is a modest park with a marker which says ‘The Hutoon-Van Rensalier Station of the Underground Railroad, 1855-1864’. Acknowledging Paterson as a stop on the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was a secret network of ‘stations’ operated by abolitionists that helped enslaved blacks escape to Canada.

The current site is sandwiched between a police complex and a fast food restaurant. Mayor Jones says that a more fitting memorial is in the planning stages and will be a part of Paterson’s rejuvenation.

It seems that a lot of the rejuvenation is still a work in progress. In fact, Paterson does not currently have a hotel to house the tourists that it is hoping to attract to its new national park. Paterson will have some work to do in order to prepare for the new demands, but Mayor Jones says that the city is up for the challenge.

“We are going to make your visit here enriching, engaging and academic; that’s what we are looking toward.” Jones went on to say, “It’s going to be a ‘sexy’ renaissance…and it’s exciting.”