PATERSON — It seemed like a magic trick straight from a David Copperfield television special: For the past three days, Paterson’s 77-foot-high waterfall disappeared.
The waters that normally spill from the upper section of the Passaic River to the lower portion were diverted through the historic hydroelectric plant, allowing scuba divers to do something that had never been done — survey underwater at the bottom of the Great Falls.
“I realized the assets we have in the park system — including an archaeological dive team,” said Darren Boch, the national park’s superintendent, who went diving with the crew. “We want to have a better understanding of what’s under the falls and how deep it is.”
What did the divers find?
In searching the bottom of the falls, the divers retrieved two firearms — one that is so rusted it was hard to identify the model. But they still had a full day of investigating left, said Dustin Gunderson, a U.S. park ranger and Search and Rescue Team leader. Both guns were reported to the city’s Police Department.
Gunderson said that given the age of the city and the importance of the waterfall to its founding, he was surprised to find so few artifacts. He theorized that the riverbed was so “clean” because of the amount of power generated by the Passaic, which cascades 2 million gallons over the falls each day.
“The force of the water kicks everything out,” Gunderson said. “We were expecting to find more stuff.”
The team arrived in Paterson on Tuesday but took its first plunge Wednesday. The divers went as much as 30 feet below the surface and remained underwater for an hour at a time.
While the divers were below the surface, a crew of archaeologists were huddled around a laptop computer on a rig that zigzagged across the inky black water, dragging a torpedo-shaped towfish that uses sonar to map the river’s topography.
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Creating a map for rescues
In addition to searching for archaeological finds, the team will create a map that will be given to the city Fire Department for rescue missions.
“We’re doing two things at once,” said Dave Conlin, an underwater archaeologist with the National Park Service. “If someone goes missing and they need to search here, they’ll already have a map.”
The topography of the water can dictate the type of watercraft the firefighters use during a rescue, said Deputy Fire Chief Arthur Woods, who was on hand at the research site.
Each year, the Fire Department gets 12 to 20 emergency rescue calls, ranging from an injured fisherman to sightings of dead bodies, Woods said.
Last year, for example, the department rescued a teenager who was stranded on a rock at the base of the falls. The Fire Department is working with the park service to clear a path from the street level to the bottom of the chasm.
“Trying to get equipment and resources to this area during a rescue is challenging because of the terrain,” Woods said.
Optimism for more discoveries
Conlin, who said the park service oversees 5 million acres of parkland, said he has traveled from Alaska to American Samoa to conduct research. He said the most important finds he has made during his career have always been human life.
“Reconnecting people that are lost with their families — there’s nothing more important than that,” Conlin said.
In 1792, Alexander Hamilton founded Paterson because of its strategic position along the Passaic River. Industries like silk mills, locomotive plants and gun manufacturers drove the city’s economy in the 19th century. The ruins of the Colt Gun Mill can still be seen along the banks of the river.
Park ranger Tylor Woznick said the dive operation took a few months to coordinate, but with so many historic sites along the river, and the Indigenous presence that predated them, he was curious about what the divers would find by the day’s end.
“That power plant started our city,” Woznick said, pointing to the century-old brick hydroelectric power plant. “Who knows? Maybe they’ll find Alexander Hamilton’s belt buckle.”
Gil Broyer, a Florham Park resident, brought his two children to see the waterfall for the first time. But he was stunned to find nothing but a dry cliffside.
“I guess we should have checked before coming,” Broyer said. “We’ll be back.”
Darren Tobia is a contributing writer for Paterson Press.