The Passaic River.The Passaic River at Millington Gorge.Photo: John Bruno

There are hundreds of thousands of waterways in the continental United States, 3.5 million miles of endlessly moving liquid. How many of these waterways are technically rivers is a rather tricky question. “River” is not a scientific term. Indeed, science is a little laissez fair when it comes to classifying a waterway as, say, a stream versus a river.

My Webster’s Tenth Collegiate Dictionary defines a river as “a natural stream of water of considerable volume.” What constitutes “considerable volume” is left to someone else to decide. So it’s not surprising that rivers vary greatly in size and habit. Some are quite small; the D River in Oregon flows just 120 feet through Lincoln City to the Pacific Ocean.  Some rivers are massive like the wide Missouri, which at 2,450 miles is America’s longest. Some rivers are ephemeral, surging into being after a desert downpour only to vanish with the rain, leaving behind a lacework of empty washes that hold the promise and threat of rushing water until the next big thunderstorm. A few rivers, like Florida’s Kissimmee, form gigantic puddles that sheet in slow motion, like the gentlest flood inching across a grassy sea some 40 miles wide.

Taken together, America’s rivers drain the countryside like a giant open vascular system that collects water from the interiors of the continent and transports it to the seas. Their precious cargo is pirated along the way for drinking, bathing, irrigating, recreating, and for powering millions of homes and industries. Rivers bring life, and they can take it away too. Such is the strange arithmetic of water: too much or too little is deadly.

Like the Passaic, most rivers are the raison d’etre for the communities and industries that have sprouted along their banks. There are thousands of river towns in the U.S. – Minneapolis, St.Louis, New Orleans, Augusta, Savannah, Albuquerque, el Paso, Cincinnati, Wheeling, Great Falls, Bismarck, Kansas City, Sioux City, Jefferson City, Omaha, Trenton, Toledo, Fort Wayne, Wilmington. Those are just some of the larger ones. The Passaic spawned Newark (1666) and Paterson, N.J. (1791), two erstwhile industrial powerhouses, as well as dozens of smaller communities like my home town. Like most rivers, the Passaic has paid dearly for its largesse.

In strictly physical terms, the Passaic is a fairly small river, just 90 miles long. Nevertheless, it is New Jersey’s longest river, edging out the Raritan by about five miles. The name Passaic means “peaceful valley” in the language of the Lenni Lenape, the Native American tribe that occupied northern New Jersey before the white settlers arrived.  

The Passaic is many rivers: swift and clear in its upper stretch, sluggish and swampy in mid-section, a thundering cascade at Great Falls, brackish below the Dundee Dam, and so industrial in its final miles that New Jersey poet laureate William Carlos Williams declared it “the vilest swill hole.”

The river rises in Mendham, an historic township in north central Jersey. It heads almost due south at first, then veers sharply north, then northeast, then due east and then south again, making two final northward loops before emptying into Newark Bay. This erratic path traces a sloppy, upside-down U that winds through, over, under, and around seven New Jersey counties, 45 of its cities and towns, three swamps, three dams, four meadows, four waterfalls, a pond, a lake, 49 bridges and seven highways, and past countless homes, parks, playing fields, parking lots, diners, junkyards, office buildings, shopping centers, gas stations, warehouses, and factories. The drive from Mendham to Newark is about 30 miles. The Passaic takes the long way around.