Extracted from PCHS Newsletter, Vol. 1 No. 4
By ISAAC A. SERVEN
Chairman of the Dey House Washington Headquarters Commission
Among the local events of importance which transpired during the past year, the sesquicentennial celebration of the encampment of the Revolutionary Army in our county and the establishment of General Washington’s Headquarters at the Dey Mansion have attracted State and National attention. Of even greater significance to the people of Passaic County is the fact that considerable information of historic interest affecting our immediate vicinity has been unearthed by local citizens. An important incident, which has escaped the eyes of other local historians, has been revealed by Isaac A. Serven, Chair, man of the Dey House Commission who possesses a valuable collection of rare books containing Revolutionary data. In a work recently acquired by Mr. Serven for his library and entitled “The Life and Correspondence of James McHenry,” military secretary of George Washington, there is a description of a, visit to the Passaic Falls by the Commander in Chief and his aides on July 10th, 1778.
After the Battle of Monmouth, on July 4th, the Continental Army passed through Acquackanonk (now Passaic) on its way to the Hudson Highlands. General Washington and his military “family” followed some days later and made a short detour to the Passaic Falls. McHenry describes the cataract and what happened there and elsewhere, on that hot July day as follows:
“In our route to Paramus, where par.t of the army had encamped in order to rest and refresh, we visited the falls of Passaic (on July 10). We crossed the river at an old bridge in very bad repair and in half a mile reached the falls.
“The rock to which they owe their birth is of considerable compass (covered in general with herbage, some trees, and shrubbery.) But besides the chasm into which the water throws itself there are several other fissures and deep dismemberments, formed as it would seem by nature in some of her violent operations. The falls tho’ curious in themselves derive additional beauty from those objects with which they are connected.
“The Passaic appears to be about 30 or 40 yards broad-but the water does not cover at the falls near this extent. There a smooth and gentle sheet tumbles down into a deep aperture or cleft of the rock, which crosses the channel, while at the same time, several lesser portions seem to steal, thro’ different, openings, rudely encountering each other in their descent, till they arrive at the bottom where they all mix together. This conflict and the dashing of the water against the asperities and contrasted sides of the rock produces a fine spray that issuing from the cleft appears at a distance like a thin body of smoke. Near the bottom of the falls it exhibits a beautiful rainbow in miniature. The aperture into which the water falls does not seem to be more than from 21 to 22 feet wide, and about 30 feet in depth, tho,’ further down and towards where the river takes a new turn the distance between the walls of rock is much greater and the perpendicular depth perhaps not less than 70 feet. Here the water composes itself as in a large basin of solid stone and then spreads into a pretty broad channel, continuing its course uninterrupted to New York bay.
“A little above the falls the water glides over some ledges of rock about 3 or 4 feet perpendicular in & very pretty manner.
“It is observable that all the clefts and dismemberments in the several parts of the rock run in the same direction. You may descend into some of them by means of earth and stones with which their entrance is made gradual and easy. On each side of these fissures is a perpendicular wall of rock overgrown with moss. There one enjoys a delightful coolness under an inter-mixture ‘of ruins and the branches of trees that form a fine shade.
“After viewing these falls, we seated ourselves round ‘the General under a large spreading oak within view of the spray and in hearing of the noise,
“A fine cool spring bubbled out most charmingly from the bottom of the tree. The traveling canteens were immediately emptied and a modest repast spread before us, of cold ham, tongue and some biscuit. With the assistance of a little spirit we composed some excellent grog. Then we chatted away a very cheerful half hour-and then took our leave of the friendly oak – its refreshing spring-and the meek falls of Passaic-less noisy and boisterous than those of Niagara or the more gentle Cohoes or the waters of the Mohawk.
“From hence we passed thro a fertile country to a place called Paramus. We stopped at a Mrs. Watkins whose-house was marked for headquarters. But the General receiving a note of invitation from a Mrs. Provost to make her Hermitage, as it was called, the seat of his stay while at Paramus, we only dined with Mrs. Watkins and her two charming daughters, who sang us several pretty songs in a very agreeable manner. At Mrs. Provost we found some fair refugees from New York who were on a visit to the lady of the Hermitage; with them we talked-and walked-and laughed-and danced and gallanted away the leisure hours of four days and four nights and would have gallanted-and danced and laughed and talked and walked with them till now had not the General given orders for departure. We left them however in the spirit of modern soldiership without much sighing in pursuit of the dangers of war and the pleasures of variety.
“It was about 6 o’clock in the (15 July) morning when we bade adieu to the Hermitage-coasting it thro’ narrow and stony roads to a place called Haverstraw in Orange County the state of New York.”
This was probably the first time that the Commander in Chief visited the Passaic Falls. Besides enjoying the scenery, he undoubtedly envisioned the industrial possibilities connected with this cataract.
It is to be regretted that we have no local artist who could commit this scene to imperishable canvas-General George Washington and his aides lunching on Totowa Heights with the Falls as a background. What a valuable civic and educational addition such a picture would be if it were hung in the City Hall or Court House. Historic scenes like these are depicted elsewhere in the state, notably in the Hudson County Court House, where “Washington at Fort Lee” and other paintings are the object of study daily by classes from various schools of Jersey City. Someday our citizenry may possess the same cultural benefits through the execution of such canvasses and the acquisition of such shrines as the Dey Mansion.