The City of Passaic


Mark S. Auerbach, Passaic City Historian

From “The Castle Genie,”
Newsletter of The Passaic County Historical Society
Genealogy Club
Vol. 8, No. 4

As taken from the
Herald & News of Thurs., April 2, 1998

An act to incorporate the City of Passaic was signed Wednesday, April 2, 1873. Passaic also celebrates over 320 years of existence, as the area of modern day Passaic was originally settled by Dutch pioneers in 1678.

On April 4, 1678, a Dutch settler and trader, Hartman MICHIELSEN (later VREELAND), purchased a “great island in the river of Pasaick near by Aquickanucke by the Indians called Menehenicke (translation of the Dutch from the original deed).” The island came to be known as Dundee Island and today that area is known as Pulaski Park and Dundee Island Park. Between 1679 and 1684-85, deeds and patents were acquired between the original settlers and the Native Americans, the Lenni-Lenapi, that secured for the original settlers the land including and surrounding modern day Passaic.

In October of 1693, the Township of Acquackanonk was created in the northern part of Essex County. The village and city of Passaic were first known as Acquackanonk, believed to be either the name or a variation of the name used by the native Lenni-Lenapi Indians. “Acquackanonk Bridge” was the name used by General George Washington to identify the area in a letter he wrote in 1886 to then Governor Richard Livingston.

In February of 1837, the County of Passaic was created from parts of northern Essex and western Bergen County. In 1854, the Village of Acquackanonk took the name of the river that it bordered, Passaic.

By the late 1860’s, the Village of Passaic was steadily growing in population and commercial and residential size. This growth was mostly due to the completion of the Dundee Dam and Dundee Canal in July of 1861. The vastly enlarged and now abundant fresh water supply became the basis for the industrial boon that would fuel Passaic’s rapid growth.

The population of the city of Passaic took hold along stretches of the Passaic River for obvious reasons, transportation. As the city grew in size, the first population concentration was in the area of Prospect Street and Main Avenue as this was close to the landing and, beginning in 1831, the newest mode of transportation, the horsedrawn railroad. The future arrived a few short years later as trains became powered by steam engines by 1834.

With the advent of water power for the factories, the city needed to expand its housing for its citizens so in rapid order the Eastside or Dundee section quickly filled up. Towards the end of the 19th century, the current First and Fourth Ward areas started to build up.

The Hill Section of Passaic, the homes of the captains of industry and the wealthy, started to spring up in the middle 1870’s and peaked by the end of the first decade of the 20th century.

The Second Ward area of the city started to rapidly develop in the beginning of the 20th century and became a predominantly Italian and Jewish area until the end of the 1940’s.

The Third Ward was the last to physically develop as it was “too far” from the rest of the town to be desirable. Today, Passaic, a city of 3.25 square miles of which 1.25 square miles is park land, is a very densely populated city, especially in its First, Second, and Fourth Wards.

The Passaic Police Department had its beginnings prior to the city’s incorporation. It was established between 1870-71. Prior to 1875, the police department was housed in various structures. In 1875, a permanent home was selected on Howe Avenue behind the municipal building. In 1923, on the site of the original Number 1 School (northeast corner of William and Passaic Streets), a new police headquarters was erected with much fanfare. In 1980, the current headquarters in the City Hall Municipal Complex were occupied by the department. Likewise, the Passaic Fire Department has a long and proud history and celebrated its 130th year in 1998.

Some of the more memorable factories and mills that employed a vast majority of Passaic’s citizens were the Botany Worsted Woolen Mills, the Forstmann Woolen Mills, Passaic Cotton Mills, the Gera Mills, the McLean Cotton Mills, Brighton Mills, the Waterhouse Mills, the Acheson & Harden Manufacturing Co., the Okonite Company, the Patasote Company, U.S. Rubber Company, Manhattan Rubber Company, Paterson Parchment Paper Company, J.L. Prescottt Company, Reid and Barry, Passaic Print Works, The Dundee Power and Water Company, the Falstrom Company, Pitkin & Holdsworth Company, and many more to numerous to mention but all equally important.

Passaic has always been a city of immigrants. After the original Dutch settlers of the latter 17th century came the English, Scottish, and a small but varied mix of mostly Western Europeans following the American Revolution. The first half of the nineteenth century saw the arrival of Germans, Irish, more English, Scandinavians, Austro-Hungarians, and a mixed group of political emigres from throughout Europe. The latter half of the 19th century saw the arrival of more Germans, Irish, and a small influx of African-Americans, mostly former slaves. The last 15 years of the 19th century saw the beginnings of the great waves of immigrants that would populate Passaic and all other industrial cities in America. Large numbers of immigrants came from Italy, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Austria-Hungary, and lesser numbers from virtually every other country in Europe and points beyond. After World War I, Passaic saw a migration of Southern Blacks to the city, and after World War II, an influx of Puerto Ricans. In 1956, during the Hungarian Revolt, many Hungarians came to Passaic to join their relatives and friends. Since the 1970’s many Hispanic immigrants have chosen Passaic as their home.

The religious history of Passaic is as diverse as any great city in the world. The Dutch arrived here in 1685, and were followed in the middle years of the 19th century by the Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Protestants, Catholics, African Methodist Episcopalians, Baptists, Jews, Lutherans, and a host of other religious denominations.

Of paramount importance to the city are its three hospitals. The General Hospital Center at Passaic started life in 1892 as the Passaic General Hospital. St. Mary’s Hospital was founded in 1895 behind St. Nicholas Church and moved to the “Hill Section” several years later. Passaic Beth Israel started as a 12-bed, one-floor hospital in 1927 on the second floor of the newly built B’nai Israel Nursing Home on Madison Street.

Prominent citizens who played a key role in the growth of Passaic included Mr. Charles McKnight K. PAULISON, responsible for developing a large area of the city, Mr. Alfred SPEER, one of the city’s early entrepreneurs who gave Passaic its name, and Mr. Benjamin Bogert AYCRIGG, first mayor of the City of Passaic 125 years ago, and Mr. Robert Dix BENSON, a successful industrialist and a president of the Board of Education.

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