The Lenni Lenape Indians knew the Falls well as a prime camping and fishing site. They called it “Totowa,” to sink or be forced down beneath the waters by weight, a tribute to this awesome mass of water. Others have called it “ Passaic Falls ”. Today it is commonly known as the “ Great Falls ,” which distinguishes from the Little Falls and describes it well. For it is indeed an experience when the Passaic River is at full flood to see this mass of water in violent motion and hear it roar as it strikes the rocks below and rushes through the gorge. Clouds of spray fill the atmosphere, and rainbows appear and disappear as the sun’s rays set fire to the ever changing mists.
Since the white man first gazed on this natural wonder in the seventeenth century, countless visitors have written about it. Poets have sung of its beauties. Artists have attempted to portray it in line and paint. And it has been photographed from every conceivable angle.
No exact record exists as to who first discovered the Great Falls. It seems likely that, following the settlement of Newark in 1666, hunters or land prospectors from that colony wandered up the river and falls in their explorations of the surrounding wilderness. In all probability it was known prior to the purchase of Dundee Island at Acquackanonck in 1678, when the island was sold by Captahem Peeters, an Indian sachem, to Hartman Michielsom. The latter secured a patent for the island in 1685 from the East Jersey Proprietors.
Land purchases in which the falls were first mentioned were made on March 28, 1679, when Captahem deeded land along the river up to the falls to Hans Diedericks, Gerret Garretson, Walling Jacobs, and Hendrick George. Payment for the land was made in coats, blankets, kettles, powder, and trinkets.
They sailed in March 1680 from Gowanus Bay to Acquackanonck, then traveled on foot to the falls. In their words, “After we had traveled a good three hours over high hills, we came to a high rocky hill where we could hear the noises of water. And Clamb erin g to the top, we saw the falls below us ¯ a sight to be seen in order to observe the power and wonder of God.” One of the missionaries, Jasper Danckaerts, wrote, “I made a sketch as well as I could, very hastily, for we had no time and it rained and snowed very much.” The sketch, probably the first graphic record of the falls, has long since disappeared.
Acquackanonck, which comprised of the land on lower Passaic County from Essex County line to Pompton is said to be derived from three Indian words: “ach-quo-ni-can,” brush or brush net; “hanne,” a rapid stream; and “onk,” a place. Hence, a place in a rapid stream where brush nets are set. This refers to the V-shaped brush nets that were set in the river in shallow places so constructed that fish became entangled in the twigs. This process yielded bountiful catches during the seasons when spawning runs of shad and sturgeon were under way.
By the turn of the eighteenth century, knowledge of the natural wonders of the falls had become widespread, and it began to attract visitors from near and far. Many who saw it left a record of their visit by carving their initials or names in the face of the cliff. A favored place for this early graffiti was on a large flat rock, reached by a deep, narrow defile which provided a path from the valley below to the plateau above the falls. The rock, about halfway down the defile, became known as the Grotto of Records because of the many initials carved on it. From this spot there was a delightful view of the river and the surrounding countryside.
It was said that Washington frequently visited this spot when his army was encamped nearby and conferred with his brother officers. On one occasion he carved his initials in the traprock, with the year “1778,” enclosed in a box with the initials of other officers. These were on the right side of the defile opposite the Grotto of Records and were visible for almost a century.
These early descriptions of the falls speak of the awe inspired by it and portray in various ways the movement of the water as it tumbles over the rocks and drops to the valley below.
Among those who wrote about the falls and the natural beauty surrounding it were the Reverend Andrew Burnaby in his Travels Through the Middle Settlements in North America in the Years 1759 and 1760 (London, 1775); Thomas Anbury, a lieutant in Burgoyne’s army, in his Travels Through the Interior Parts of America in 1778 (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1923); Johann D. Schroeph in his Travels in the Confederation (1783-1784), translated by A.J. Morrison (Philadelphia, 1911), and the Marquis De Cassa Yruja, who was there in 1807 and wrote of his visit in travels in North America (New York, 1923).
The beauty of the falls resulted in what may have been an embrassing moment for one distinguished visitor. The Marquis Francois Jean de Chastellux saw the falls while on his way to visit Washington at his headquarters nearby. Attracted by its roar, he spent so much time admiring its wonders that he was late for his dinner with the general. An account of the episode is contained in his Travels in North America, published in New York in 1827.
At the Godwin House, or Passaic Hotel, established near the falls in 1775, folios were provided for the benefit of guests. In these, visitors were encouraged to write their names, the dates of their stays, and their comments.
Over a long period of time, the area of the falls was a productive source of fish for the Indians and later for the white settlers. During the spawning season, shad and other anadromous species would come in great numbers to the waters below the falls, where their upstream progress would be stopped. The Indians used weirs and V-shaped brush traps, spears, and other devices to catch the fish. Many of these were dried for later use. The settlers who purchased lands from the Indians accepted fishing rights as a portion of their legal titles.
Spring shad runs were events of great importance to the early white residents. The progress of the shad up the river was closely followed and reported daily. Crude traps formed by lashing saplings together were placed in the river with a small opening on the upstream side. These would be drawn into a pen made by building rough walls of stones. After the fish had swum into the pen the opening would be closed and the quarry gathered. In some of these hauls as many as five hundred fish might be taken.
Sturgeon, as well as shad, made their way to the foot of the falls and, because of their size, were especially prized. One of the largest ever reported was taken on August 31, 1817, and was said to have weighed 130 pounds. A news story cov erin g this event appeared in the Bergen Press and Paterson Advertizer on September 3, 1817, under the headline THE MONSTER TAKEN.
With the building of the Dundee Dam at the head of the tidewater at Passaic in 1858, migratory runs of shad, sturgeon, and other species to the falls ended. Perch, trout, bass, catfish, and other freshwater species continued to provide food and good sport for many years. But, gradually, with the increasing industria liz ation along the river and its resulting pollution, many species disappeared. Today, sunfish and hardy carp are about the only fish left, and fishing the Passaic at the falls is a pleasant but usually unproductive pastime.
In spite of increased industrial activity in the vicinity, the popularity of the falls was but little, if any, diminished throughout the early and mid-1800′s. The facilities there went through processes of enlargement and improvement. In 1850, William Archdeacon, then owner, advertised the Cottage on the Cliff at Passaic Falls , where target practice ranges were available to military companies and where a spacious dining hall attached to the cottage could accommodate two hundred persons at a time for dinner.
Peter Archdeacon, who had purchased the falls grounds in 1839, had further improved the property and replaced the Clinton Bridge with another covered structure in 1844. A third bridge at the same location was built by John Ryle, the next owner; this one was open at the top, with paneled sides, and like the first two, was built of wood. In March 1868, the bridge was declared unsafe and was replaced by an iron bridge with open sides so the falls would be visible. This bridge, constructed by the Watson Machine Company, was eighty-five feet in length. It remained in place until 1888, when another iron bridge, 125 feet long, replaced it.
On April 6, 1917, the day the United States declared war on Germany , the fifth bridge was locked and closed to the public, in order to prevent sabotage of the hydroelectric facilities at the falls. Later, the flooring and side rails were removed, and for more than fifty years crossing of the chasm by pedestrians ceased.
The foregoing are but a few of the pieces of the history recorded in the long history of the falls. There were many others. The attraction of the Passaic River lured and continues to lure the daring, the curious, and the careless.