the passaic’s song of reproach

by Frank J. Urquhart

Image: Boylan FitzGerald via colorantshistory.org
Image: Boylan FitzGerald via colorantshistory.org

The thing ye tread, although seeming dead, may turn and wound the heel,
        And words of brass that seem to pass may come back words of steel.
The deeds of man are of boundless span, whether for good or ill,
        And much of his woe began ages ago, and will last for ages still.

Ye found me fair and as clear as air; ye were careless and dense and dumb.
        Ye have done thy will with my waters, until ye have made me a thing to shun.
For greatness ye sought, and toiled and wrought, unmindful of what ye did
        To my tides that flow at thy feet, and so my sickening face I hid.

And ye grew in power, but hour by hour, unwitting, ye weakened, too.
        As ye piled thy wealth there stole by stealth a pall o’er my waters blue.
Thy gold heaps grew, but the dross ye threw with wanton scorn to me.
        Now I bid ye cease; and give me release! Go carry thy scum to the sea!

On every bark I’ll place the mark of the unclean curse ye’ve given.
        ‘Round shop and stack my steaming wrack shall coil and writhe to heaven.
From the sight of me thy people shall flee and hush their merry laughter;
        And my waters shall spread, with the fever they dread, the death that follows after.

The fouling of Passaic waters can be traced through centuries of human use along their entire 80-mile length. While the river as a whole has entered a period of recovery, mid-twentieth-century contamination of sediments in the lower Passaic so far seems beyond the powers of nature, or human ingenuity, to reverse.

Frank J. Urquhart is best known as the author of A Short History of Newark, first issued by the Newark Public Library in three parts and later collected and reprinted in book form. The work was used extensively in the city’s schools. “The Passaic’s Song of Reproach” appeared in the Newark Sunday Call on March 1, 1903.

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