We had two northeast New Jersey historical parks on our agenda, with one being a bit of a letdown and the other rather enlightening.
First we stopped at Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park, where the Passaic River drops 77 feet in a 300-foot-wide waterfall. The falls themselves were rather ho-hum, with the town being of historical interest mostly because President Alexander Hamilton saw the river as an ideal way to power a new industrial hub. After Hamilton’s founding of the city, Paterson became especially well-known for factories producing locomotive engines, textiles and silk.
The volunteer at the Visitor Center recommended that we walk a few blocks to downtown to check out historic buildings calling to mind architecture in New York City’s Wall Street and Washington, D.C. One of them was the 1898 Classic Revival courthouse. When we asked to go inside to view the rotunda (which the park volunteer raved about), at first the security guards eyed us skeptically and asked what business we had there and why we had a camera.
When we said we were merely tourists there to admire the architecture, they shook their heads in disbelief and said that tourists — least of all from Arizona — don’t come to Paterson, New Jersey. However, they let us take all the pictures we wanted. The town had a distinct Hispanic feel to it, with Peruvian restaurants and businesses everywhere downtown. We felt like we were in some small city in Latin America rather than semi-rural New Jersey. With its plethora of historic buildings, Paterson seems ripe for gentrification.
We then drove a short distance to West Orange to Thomas Edison National Historical Park. The site commemorates the famous inventor’s research laboratory complex, including a chemistry lab, metal shop and the hulking Black Maria (pictured above, behind Hector) — the world’s first motion picture studio that sat on a turntable to rotate the building and had a roof that opened for maximum sunlight all day.
For anyone who likes antiques, gadgetry and manufactured items of old, Thomas Edison park is fascinating. Guided tours of Glenmont Estate — Edison’s home just up the road — are also available. Because we arrived too late in the day to get tickets for the home tour, however, we spent our time exploring the three-story laboratory complex. The lab’s machine rooms in particular had a definite steampunk ambiance.
Even the extensive library where Edison spent a great deal of his time thinking and researching ideas for inventions was cast in sepia tones that transported us to the bygone days of mechanical curiosities.
The third floor of the main lab has shelf after shelf of prototypes, laboratory furniture, sound recordings, photographs and other artifacts from Edison’s life and work spanning a remarkable 84 years. His proudest invention was the phonograph, but all told he held more than 1,000 patents for items like the incandescent light bulb, kinetograph motion picture camera, Portland cement, nickel-iron-alkaline storage battery, and dozens of other products that his companies commercialized. He didn’t necessarily hit a home run with everything, though; one of his less successful inventions was a talking doll whose delicate inner workings broke easily and whose voice was horribly annoying to little girls and grownups alike. Like us with Project 100, you win some, you lose some.
Our recommendation for anyone interested in the history of this little corner of New Jersey is to go lighter on Paterson Great Falls and spend more time at the Thomas Edison park properties.