Map of the Passaic RiverAt 90 miles, the Passaic is the longest, crookedest, and most historic river in New Jersey. Map: Passaic River

The Passaic’s 90-mile journey can be divided into three long stretches. The Upper Passaic is a largely downhill romp through meadows and forest and along the southeastern edge of the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. The Central Basin is the long, flat, flood-prone mid-section that flows north through an ancient lakebed. The Lower Valley, where I grew up, is a 35-mile-long corridor with sides that curl like plumped pillows as it sweeps down from the cliffs of Paterson to the sea level marshes of Newark.

In its convoluted journey from pristine headwaters to the superfund site at its mouth, the Passaic mirrors the triumphant and tragic relationship between nature and industry in America. The wildness and beauty that awed the first settlers some 400 years ago turned America into an industrial titan. Rivers like the Passaic powered the mills, farms, and factories that produced clothes, food, steel and electricity, a robust international trade, and a large and solid middle class. But along the way, the mighty frontier that helped forge American enterprise and character fell victim to an industrial fervor that seemed, at every turn, to sacrifice natural resources for financial gain.

The power and much of the breathtaking natural beauty of our national mountains, forests, rivers, and seas survives today only in the isolated patches of our national parks, and then just barely. “Our tools are better than we are,” wrote naturalist Aldo Leopold in his 1949 environmental classic A Sand County Almanac. “They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides. But they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.” My great grandmother Emily Sullivan had a saying: “Don’t shit in the nest.” The Passaic River is an object lesson in what can happen when we ignore that simple, salty advice.

The Passaic changes character in the Lower Valley. Seventeen miles upstream of the river’s mouth in Newark Bay, the Dundee Dam crosses the river. The Passaic is fresh water above the dam. Below, the river becomes a swirl of fresh water and seawater whose salinity varies with conditions of weather, river flow, and ocean tide. Water levels in the river fluctuate about five feet with each daily tide. During extreme high tides, the Passaic can rise as much as 11 feet. When conditions are right — a high tide during the dry summer season, for instance — the tongue of saltwater from Newark Bay can lick the Dundee Dam, a full 17 miles upstream.

The Aqua Patio passengers were all quieter on the return trip, even Bill and Andy. I wondered what they would all take away from this experience. Andy used the Passaic River cruises to shake people up, open their eyes, confront them with the tragedy and the possibility of the Passaic. Later that year, he would take the mayors of Newark and Harrison out for a ride on the river. Baykeeper hosts cruises for local business leaders, for the press and for the general public too.

“Our job is to make advocates of people,” said Andy. He was giving me a lift back to my car, steering his Subaru Outback slowly along the paved streets that wind through the PVSC plant from the riverside dock to the visitor’s parking lot at the main entrance. “Remember Moby Dick?” he asked, out of the blue. “The first chapter is all about Manhattan. When industry and pollution kind of took the water away from people, the people responded appropriately: they turned their back on the waterway and took on other interests. Same thing with the Passaic. When the Passaic became foul, when it was no longer a place to picnic and boat and swim, it became less known to everyone except the people who worked on it. And those people used it as a highway and a toilet, and when it started to smell bad and people started to hear warnings about it, the Passaic became an unknown place.”

I left Andy standing in the parking lot, deep in conversation with the two environmental engineers from the cruise.  My maiden voyage on the Passaic River had the desired effect.  Andy would have been pleased. I didn’t get over my fear of the Passaic. But after the boat ride that fear mingled with curiosity and a kind of compassion. The river had touched me.


This is the first of a two-part excerpt from This American River: From Paradise to Superfund, Afloat on New Jersey’s Passaic.

Stay tuned for Part Two: Paddling the Passaic from its pristine beginning to its dioxin-laced end.