In 1791 Alexander Hamilton stood on the bluffs that overlooked the Passaic River’s great waterfall, and envisioned a mighty industrial city. He prophesied that the only way his new country could be truly independent from England and Europe was to develop its own resources and industry.
Wary that democracy by the masses was not powerful enough to bring about the quick development of a strong industrial economy, Hamilton lobbied Congress to appropriate one million dollars to build a government-owned and operated industrial center. Congress balked.
However, through the influence of his politically connected friends, Hamilton convinced the New Jersey Legislature to charter a corporation for the sole purpose of creating an industrial city.
The corporation was named “Society for Establishing Useful Manufacturers.” Its charter gave it extraordinary financial and governmental powers. S.U.M had exclusive control over the Passaic River and its great waterfall.
Its property and the corporation were tax exempt. It had the right to create its own government within the bounds of its territory, and to condemn property bordering its lands for its own use, as well as hold lotteries to raise funds. Among the original sixty-five stockholders were two Supreme Court justices, four senators, nine congressmen, a former governor of New Jersey, and the present governor, William Paterson—the namesake of the city S.U.M built. This obvious conflict of interest set the tone for the operation of Paterson for the next one hundred and twenty-five years.
S.U.M set out immediately to build its own factories as well as to lease and sell land to other entrepreneurs. Word spread rapidly. The city became a Mecca for men with grandiose ideas such as Samuel Colt, whose six-shooter helped tame the west; Thomas Rogers whose Rogers Locomotive factory built not only one of the first locomotives in America, but Union Pacific’s Engine number 119 that bumped cow catchers with its counterpart from the west at Promontory, Utah to unite the country by rail; John Holland, developer of the first practical submarine which he tested in the Passaic River; and John Ryle, who in the eighteen-forties, built a silk mill and started an industry that would dwarf all others. By 1900 there were three hundred mills in Paterson that were turning raw silk into a fabric of shimmering beauty to luxuriously adorn the bodies and homes of America’s rich.
Enticed by pictures of gold lying in the streets waiting to be scooped up, immigrants flocked to Paterson, carrying with them little more than their dreams for freedom, equality and riches. A few realized those dreams and joined the ranks of the industrialists, but most soon found out they had traded their past oppression under the aristocrats of Europe for a new form of oppression, fostered on them by the powerful mill owners. The industrialists ruled Paterson as a private kingdom. They had no concern for the city or the people that inhabited it, treating Paterson and its immigrant laborers as expendable commodities needed only to create the one product that meant anything to them—money.
Nothing was built for the public without a bitter fight from the directors of S.U.M and the other industrialists. A cholera epidemic established an obvious need for sewers, but it took a special act of the state legislature to force SUM to build them. S.U.M, because of its tax exempt status, refused to pay its fair share for sidewalks, and it was not until 1907, despite numerous typhoid outbreaks, that SUM finally was forced to put proper filters on its system that supplied drinking water to the city.
Government became an industry of its own, earning its revenues from the industrialists who owned the politicians, the courts, the press and the ballot box. The working class was disenfranchised from both politics and the social order of the city. They became outcasts, treated no better than the products they produced with their labor. However, there was one factor the autocratic industrialists could not control—the flow of ideas.
During the nineteenth century, the population of Paterson increased by fifty percent every decade. The immigrants who crowded into the tenements were of the same stock as America’s founding fathers and the industrialists who tried to control them. Their tongues were equally as sharp, their organizing abilities as keen, and their demands for “certain unalienable rights” as insistent. With every avenue of legal protest shut to them, they hit out at their oppressors the only way left open to them: they withheld their labor from the mills.
Their first strike came in 1794, the only demand being schooling for their children. Over the next one hundred and nineteen years, as the dictatorship of the industrialists grew stronger and their refusal to do anything for the welfare of the city became more adamant, Paterson’s laborers struck their bosses an additional one hundred and thirty-six times.
Through their ownership of the politicians and the police, the bosses easily put down every strike, but each defeat taught valuable lessons to the laborers. The day was fast approaching when the masses would be heard and the power structure would shift. That day arrived on February 25, 1913. Twenty-four thousand workers walked out of Paterson’s three hundred silk mills, throwing the city into chaos for five months.
Silk Legacy is the story of one family torn apart by The Great Silk Strike of 1913.