Today was a holiday – Labor Day – so I went to see the Great Falls at Paterson, NJ, something I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. Alexander Hamilton called attention to this site, and got George Washington’s support for a planned industrial city here that would exploit the power of the rushing Passaic River. After the Civil War, it was one of the most thriving industrial cities in the United States.
Paterson is a severely depressed city now, with few signs of gentrification or working class vibrancy. The old mill buildings, impressive in their massing, are mostly empty. The one that used to serve as a major assembly point for locomotives is now a museum.
Besides the falls, we were drawn to Paterson by this house, the Botto House. It was the focal point of the six month silk workers strike in 1913 that idled the great textile manufacturers of what was then known as Silk City. The police force of Paterson totally backed the owners, so worker rallies there were liable to be met with brutal force. Mr. Botto, a skilled weaver from the Piedmont of Italy, offered his house, which he had built for his family, as a meeting point in the town of Haledon next to Paterson. The mayor was a German immigrant and a socialist, so there was no fear of the police there!
This photo shows the house totally surrounded by thousands of workers who had come to be addressed by the likes of Upton Sinclair, Big Bill Haywood, and a host of international socialist, anarchist, and super radical IWW celebrities. The strike was remarkable for its size, its duration, and the solidarity of the different national groups (there were many!) and skill levels involved. Eventually, they were starved back to work, but the strike lived on as a vivid symbol of worker power, and no doubt many an organizer got his training there.
The house, a landmark and museum, is now surrounded by a quiet residential neighborhood, but at the time it was in the middle of a large green bordered by woods that formed a natural ampitheatre. Botto’s granddaughter lives nearby, and sold the house to the museum in the 1980s. We stood on the second floor balcony from which the rabble rousers had addressed the crowds.
The uptairs has a room in which to watch a very good short documentary on the strike and the Botto family. Hard lives these people had – even relatively well off ones like the skilled tradesman Botto – but how many recall their struggles today? According to the film, Botto was one of a large community of north Italian skilled laborers who brought a strong tradition of activism and agitation to our shores. I wonder how they passed through the examination of Ellis Island that was supposed to deny access to anarchists and trouble makers?
On the way out, I purchased a facsimile edition of the 1923 I.W.W. Song Book – Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent. I like that title.