Thursday, May 20, 2010

Exploring the Passaic

The Passaic River in Lord Stirling Park, near Basking Ridge, NJ

Yesterday's Grist featured the first installment of a two-part essay on the Passaic, New Jersey's longest river, written by someone who grew up on the river's banks. Here is a taste:
The Passaic is many rivers: swift and clear in its upper stretch, sluggish and swampy in mid-section, a thundering cascade at Great Falls, brackish below the Dundee Dam, and so industrial in its final miles that New Jersey poet laureate William Carlos Williams declared it "the vilest swill hole."

The river rises in Mendham, an historic township in north central Jersey. It heads almost due south at first, then veers sharply north, then northeast, then due east and then south again, making two final northward loops before emptying into Newark Bay. This erratic path traces a sloppy, upside-down U that winds through, over, under, and around seven New Jersey counties, 45 of its cities and towns, three swamps, three dams, four meadows, four waterfalls, a pond, a lake, 49 bridges and seven highways, and past countless homes, parks, playing fields, parking lots, diners, junkyards, office buildings, shopping centers, gas stations, warehouses, and factories. The drive from Mendham to Newark is about 30 miles. The Passaic takes the long way around.

The Passaic's 90-mile journey can be divided into three long stretches. The Upper Passaic is a largely downhill romp through meadows and forest and along the southeastern edge of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. The Central Basin is the long, flat, flood-prone mid-section that flows north through an ancient lakebed. The Lower Valley, where I grew up, is a 35-mile-long corridor with sides that curl like plumped pillows as it sweeps down from the cliffs of Paterson to the sea level marshes of Newark.

In its convoluted journey from pristine headwaters to the superfund site at its mouth, the Passaic mirrors the triumphant and tragic relationship between nature and industry in America. The wildness and beauty that awed the first settlers some 400 years ago turned America into an industrial titan. Rivers like the Passaic powered the mills, farms, and factories that produced clothes, food, steel and electricity, a robust international trade, and a large and solid middle class. But along the way, the mighty frontier that helped forge American enterprise and character fell victim to an industrial fervor that seemed, at every turn, to sacrifice natural resources for financial gain.
Read the rest.