PATERSON, N.J. - In America's newest national park-to-be, a rainbow gleaming in the mists of a breathtaking waterfall vies for attention with glittering piles of discarded beer cans.

Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park, created by President Obama's signature March 30, is not Yosemite. Or the Grand Canyon. Or the Everglades.

It is a 35-acre confluence of nature and history on the Passaic River tucked into a tumbledown former industrial area that surrounds the East Coast's second-largest waterfall.

In the 1790s, Alexander Hamilton hoped to make the falls the engine of the United States' nascent manufacturing industry. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the falls powered factories that made revolvers, locomotives, and silk.

In recent times, though, the biggest thing to hit the falls was an unlucky victim who got tossed off the footbridge in an episode of The Sopranos.

For years, local officials, especially former Paterson mayor and now Rep. William Pascrell Jr., fought to put the "national park" stamp on the falls and surrounding area as a way to attract attention, tourists, and money to an old mill city struggling to recover from decades of decline.

The National Park Service demurred, concluding in 2006 that the Paterson site "does not appear to have particularly unique resources unlike those already represented in the national park system or protected and interpreted by other public and private entities."

But Pascrell and his congressional allies, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (whose chief of staff, John Lawrence, is a Paterson native), persisted, and the park was included in an omnibus lands bill that passed last month.

So it probably was inevitable that critics immediately dubbed Paterson Great Falls a "pork park."

Nevertheless, on Wednesday, congressmen, senators, National Park Service officials and community leaders gathered under white tents in a light rain to celebrate. And in a post-ceremony meeting, they began the laborious process of gathering land records and working out details that will allow the Department of the Interior to officially proclaim the site a national park.

It will be the fifth national park in New Jersey, according to Park Service spokesman Phil Sheridan.

"We're not talking about Yellowstone," Pascrell said last week. "But in its way, it's just as significant as Yellowstone. This is where the Industrial Revolution started.

"For a city that is trying to crawl back up to what it once was, this is so critical."

Pascrell envisions an amphitheater, restaurants, an interpretive center, and a link to the nearby downtown.

"We don't want to put purple ropes around this place," he said. "We want people to come down here and spend money. That's part of what this is all about."

The first visitors already are trickling in, drawn by the news that a national park is coming to New Jersey's third-largest city. And nearby Libby's hot dog stand ("Texas weiners since 1936") is doing a booming business.

"I was surprised to see it in the city; I thought it would be more like wilderness," Rhonda Knudson, of Bordentown, said as she and her husband, Garrett, and two children stood on the pedestrian bridge below the falls. "I hope it helps the town. I love the diversity of the community."

Javiel Velez, a laid-off warehouse supervisor who has lived in Paterson all his 31 years, said he hoped the park would mean "a lot more money and security" for the area. He was walking on a park path with his 4-year-old daughter Shilynn. He said the local waterfall would be a good stand-in for bigger, more-distant falls.

"A lot of people can come here who don't have a chance to go to Yellowstone or someplace," he said. "It's just a shame there's so much garbage around."

Despite efforts to clean up for last week's celebration, debris still bobs in the river's eddies and clings to the greening shrubbery among the factory ruins.

"Security is definitely needed, so you don't have bums hanging out," said Herry Ramirez, a 20-year-old college student who was scrambling over the rocks at the river's edge with his 16-year-old brother, Thomas Abreu, both of Paterson. "You don't want it to get dirty."

In 2004, the Great Falls and adjacent area were designated a New Jersey state park. The state invested $10 million and created a master plan, which may be used by national park planners as they proceed.

The park's centerpiece is the 77-foot-high falls, largest on the East Coast (in width and volume, though not height) after Niagara Falls.

When Alexander Hamilton visited the falls during the Revolutionary War, he saw the potential for using the waterpower to drive industry. In 1791, he chose the Great Falls as the site for a town that could be a "national manufactory," and established the Society for the Establishment of Useful Manufactures.

The initial efforts failed, but Paterson grew from Hamilton's early vision and by the mid-19th century was a teeming immigrant city whose workers labored in the mills below the falls.

Today, the "Silk City" is still a bustling immigrant city, with Hispanic arrivals replacing the Irish, Germans, and Poles. But the mills have long gone, and the city is struggling to reinvent itself.

"We're starting to see the rebirth already," said Mayor Jose Torres, citing 600 condominiums being built near the falls. "We're targeting young professionals . . . and looking at opportunities for artists' housing."

He predicted that in about six months, the necessary work would be done to permit the Interior secretary to issue the national park designation.

"We are moving very fast. . . . In less than a year, I think we will see the Smokey Bear hats coming in."

Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com.