Call it a travesty of geography. The Borough of Hawthorne sits on land the Lenape called Woakeu, or what we would pronounce Wagaraw–literally ‘crooked place’, referring to the great bend in the Passaic River which deflects the flow south to Newark Bay. Yet, the presence of the Passaic hardly plays a role in the minds of most townspeople, save the residents in the southeast corner which occasionally endure its floods. It was not always so.
Geologically speaking, the Passaic itself is relatively new to Hawthorne. Before the last ice age, the river flowed east to Raritan Bay directly through a gap in the Watchung Mountains near Short Hills. But as the glaciers advanced and retreated some 20,000 years ago, the river was diverted, eventually finding an outlet through the Watchung Mountains at the Great Falls in Paterson. Established in its new channel, the river played host to Hawthorne’s first residents, the Lenape. While long lost to time, their camps abounded along the banks of the river, following the Wagaraw Trail, which reached a crucial junction with two other major Lenape trails within our borders. A 1913 archaeology survey of the state describes six Lenape camps on the banks of the river in Hawthorne, two at the mouth of Goffle Brook, and four more between there and Maple Ave –that’s not even counting four more camps stretching upstream along Goffle Brook.
The Lenape also constructed elaborate stone weirs (fish traps) everywhere downstream of the Great Falls, some of which undoubtedly stood on our shores. Surprisingly enough, one of these structures remains largely intact not a stone’s throw away (pun intended). Just south of Maple Ave, between Fair Lawn and Paterson, and across the street from the McDonald’s on Route 20, a V-shaped stone weir still spans the river. The ancient dam, which could be among the oldest human structures in the state, is readily visible on aerial images and can be seen from the ground when the water is low.
In the time since the Lenape, European settlers have exploited the river in various ways, at first to power mills and other industrial operations, and later as a means to convey wastes from those operations. Residents from our community were employed in the multitude of dye houses in Paterson, which early on used water from the Passaic in their manufacturing processes. Hawthorne itself even had its own riverside manufacturing row (which stretches into modern Fair Lawn), formerly hosting companies such as United Piece Dye Works, Wagaraw Bleaching and Finishing Company, and Textile Dyeing Company of America.
Today, the legacy of the river’s industrial past still persists. Roughly half of Hawthorne’s waterfront lies in commercial/industrial properties. But the other half of our shore fronts municipal land, including the Wagaraw Sports Complex and Veterans’ Field. While there has never been any effort to make the riverbank more accessible through these lands, it is certainly reachable, and can even be described as rather beautiful in spots.
Looking ahead, Hawthorne could place the Passaic more squarely in the minds of residents by taking a cue from Garfield. In 2014, that community built a park and path along the Passaic, which as of 2017 is still being actively expanded. A similar or even simpler walkway along our banks might do wonders to help residents connect with the past, appreciate the river’s beauty, and maybe –just maybe– serve as a reminder that Hawthorne is a river town.
Daniel J. Ciarletta is a PhD candidate in Environmental Management at Montclair State University, with a research focus on sedimentology and coastal geomorphology. He has more than a passing interest in the geology, geography, and history of New Jersey, and is also an avid hiker.