Rahway History
Chief Rahwack from RHS Yearbook 1934. Artist Unknown
Chief Rahwack from RHS Yearbook 1934. Artist Unknown
RAHWAY, established in 1720, is one of the oldest settlements in New Jersey, lies on the Rahway River about 20 m. S.W. of New York City. Rahway and the surrounding area were once the home of the Lenni Lenape Native Americans, and named in honor of the Indian chief Rahwack, whose tribe owned the site and the surrounding territory; it was chartered as a city in 1858.
Formal European settlement began in 1664 with the purchase by the English from the Lenape of the Elizabethtown Tract, which encompassed lands from the mouth of the Raritan River and included all of present-day Union County as well as parts of Somerset, Middlesex, Morris and Essex counties.
For many years Rahway was popularly known as Spanktown, and in January 1777, during the War of Independence, a skirmish, known as the battle of Spanktown, was fought here.
Pop. 1890-7,105; 1900-7,935 of whom 1,345 were foreign-born; 1910 U.S. census 9,337, Rahway was served by the carriage route between New York and later by the Philadelphia main line of the Pennsylvania railroad. It has wide streets and attractive parks, and is, to some extent, is a residential suburb of New York and other neighboring cities.
Abraham Clark signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Abraham Clark signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Because Staten Island, Elizabethtown and Perth Amboy were points of entry for the British during the American Revolution, Rahway saw its share of action. Presbyterians tended to be ardent revolutionaries, and the Reverend Aaron Richards fled to South Hanover to escape imprisonment by the British.
Abraham Clark, who lived on a farm north of Rahway, was a delegate to the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Like Richards, Clark was harassed by the British during the war. He lived to see independence from Britain and helped to establish the new national government. Clark died in 1794 while watching bridge construction in Rahway, and was buried in the Presbyterian cemetery. Clark Township, New Jersey, is named in his honor.
Washington Irving
Washington Irving

Throughout the war, troops traversed Rahway, which was the scene of several skirmishes.  On January 6, 1777, the Battle of Spanktown was fought on St. Georges Avenue in the vicinity of Robinson’s Branch and the North Branch of the Rahway River.  The battle lasted twelve hours with the rebels getting the best of the British, who lost almost one hundred men.  The British invaded Rahway again in March, killing a few rebels and taking fifteen prisoners, during the war, a young New York City merchant and known rebel, William Irving, moved to Rahway with his wife Sarah to avoid imprisonment by the British.  In 1783, two years after they moved back to New York, Mrs. Irving gave birth to their son, Washington Irving, who was to become one of America’s most renowned authors.

Following the Revolution, Rahway became the home of the first national mint to create a coin bearing the inscription E pluribus Unum.

E pluribus unum, Latin for "Out of many one", is a motto requested by Pierre Eugene du Simitiere (originally Pierre Eugène Ducimetière) and found in 1776 on the Seal of the United States, and adopted by an Act of Congress in 1782. The phrase originally came from Moretum, a poem attributed to Virgil but with the actual author unknown. In the poem text, color est e pluribus unus describes the blending of colors into one. A different account was put forward in the Discovery Channel program "Secret America". According to an interview with Priscilla Linn, Senior Curator, State Dept. Diplomacy, the phrase "Out of Many, One" came from a magazine called "The Gentleman's Magazine," published at the time of the revolution. Each year, the magazine would re-purpose one article from each of the year's 12 issues, publishing a standalone issue that was "Out of many, one".
A United States Post Office established in Rahway was one of only six in the entire state in 1791.
Lloyd Garrison's sketch
Lloyd Garrison's sketch "Girl Scout House". Click on photo to enlarge.
The Merchants and Drovers Tavern resides at the corner of St. Georges and Westfield Avenues. The earliest buildings at the site date to 1795 and the property remains one of Rahway's most prominent historical landmarks.
In Lloyd Garrison’s Sketch, the original building was constructed as a two story house and store in the 1780's, it received a tavern license in 1798. The smaller building to the right is the old schoolhouse built around 1750. The far building was the First Presbyterian Church as it looked in the late 1700's. It was destroyed by fire in 1799.
George Washington visited Rahway during his travel to New York City prior to his presidential inauguration in 1789. A marker across the street from the tavern reads: Here, on April 23, 1789, on his way to New York City, Washington was received by troops from Elizabethtown and Newark. He was entertained at the inn kept by Samuel Smith by gentlemen of the town.
Wheatena Factory 1940's
Wheatena Factory 1940's
Rahway grew due to its location along the major stagecoach route and later, railroad lines between New York City and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The navigable Rahway River, which flows through the city, also aided the city's commercial growth.
As immigrants from Britain, Ireland and Germany streamed into what was then Rahway Township in the 1850s, Rahway became incorporated as a city on April 19, 1858, from portions of Rahway Township in Union and Woodbridge Township, in Middlesex County. In 1860, the portion of Rahway that had been part of Middlesex County was transferred to Union. On March 13, 1861, the remainder of Rahway Township became part of Rahway City.
The city became home to dozens of major manufacturers, including the Regina Music Box Company, Wheatena, and Mershon Bros. and, most importantly, Merck & Co., which was established in Rahway in 1903, when George Merck moved his small chemical company to Rahway from New York City. The company remained in Rahway through the presidency of George W. Merck and after.
Carriage City Plaza at Milton & Irving Streets. Hotel & Luxury Condominiums.
Carriage City Plaza at Milton & Irving Streets. Hotel & Luxury Condominiums.
Since World War II, Rahway, like many municipalities in the Northeast, lost much of its industrial base as factory jobs shifted south or overseas. The city has seen the rise of service-dependent jobs within its borders and growth in finance, pharmaceuticals and telecommunications throughout the region as Rahway residents traveled throughout New Jersey and New York for employment. Now beginning the 21 Century, Rahway is a diverse middle-class community of 26,500 that has been reinventing itself in the post-industrial age and celebrated 150 years of its incorporation as a city in 2008.
Noted Residents
Steven J. Balla, author of Bureaucracy and Democracy: Accountability and Performance, was born and raised in Rahway.
Boland brothers - aviation pioneers.
Maurice Brachhausen, aka M.C. Brock, radio and television pioneer who created and wrote the series Captain Video on the early Dumont television network, was a lifelong resident of Rahway.
Clifford P. Case - Former United States Senator, lived in Rahway, and served on the Municipal Council from 1938-1942.
Abraham Clark - Signer of the Declaration of Independence is buried at the Rahway Cemetery.
Paul Dembling, the Federal attorney responsible for forming NASA as a government agency in July of 1958, was born and raised in Rahway.
Milton Friedman - Economist was born in New York City but raised in Rahway.
Lloyd Garrison – Internationally acclaimed artist/painter, born and raised in Rahway.
Antonio Garay - Defensive Tackle for the Chicago Bears.
Wayne Gilchrest - U.S. Congressman was born in Rahway.
Dory Previn - Lyricist and singer-songwriter, born here (as Dorothy Veronica Langan).
Eric Roberson - Soul artist and writer
Carl Sagan - Astronomer lived in Rahway and was a Rahway High School graduate. Sagan has his own display case in the library on the second floor.
Chris Smith - U.S. Congressman was born in Rahway.
Nikola Tesla - formed his company, Tesla Electric Light Company, in Rahway.
Dr. P. Roy Vagelos - Retired Merck & Co. CEO, was a graduate of Rahway High School and lived in Rahway for many years.
Carolyn Wells (1862-1942), Author and poet who was born in Rahway and is currently interred in Rahway Cemetery.
Rahway train station By Jeff Jotz
The Rahway train station traces its history back to the earliest days of railroading in New Jersey. After the development of the first successful steam locomotive in America by John Stevens (of Stevens Institute of Technology Fame), the New Jersey Railroad began laying track for a mainline between New York and Philadelphia in 1831. By 1835, trains between New York and Philadelphia began stopping at Rahway.
The New Jersey Railroad was soon acquired by the growing Pennsylvania Railroad several years later and the railroad giant soon added trains from Rahway to the hundreds of destinations throughout the country served by the mighty Pennsy.
Around the turn of the century, the city and the railroad were concerned about the number of grade crossing accidents between trains and pedestrians and trains and vehicles through Rahway’s central business district. In 1913, the railroad right-of-way was elevated and a new granite and concrete station was built along Milton Avenue and Irving Street to replace the older wood-frame station.
For over 60 years, the Pennsy, which boasted of itself as "The Standard Railroad of the World," hauled freight and passengers from Rahway to the Jersey Shore, New York, Philadelphia and beyond, significantly boosting Rahway's importance as a manufacturing and residential center. The city’s commerce rapidly moved away from the old stagecoach roads and Rahway River to the train station downtown. In 1935 the railroad electrified the tracks through Rahway, providing city residents with a direct connection to Pennsylvania Station in New York City, as well as Trenton, Philadelphia, South Amboy and Washington. The railroad's huge, electric GG- 1 locomotives were a common sight in Rahway well into the early 1980s.
After the Pennsy merged with the New York Central in 1968 and changed its name to the Penn Central, the railroad, like many of its competitors, became mired in bankruptcy and financial woe. With funds from the New Jersey Department of Transportation, Penn Central constructed a new, "improved" station on the site of the old Rahway Penn Station in the spring of 1974. The station's design and the railroad’s spotty train service soon resulted in numerous headaches for commuters and neighbors as the Penn Central was transformed into Conrail in 1976 and the state reluctantly began investing dollars in passenger rail travel.
NJ Transit’s creation and subsequent takeover of the state’s commuter rail operations in the early 1980s brightened the picture considerably for rail service in Rahway. In 1991, New Jersey Transit expressed interest in replacing Rahway station with a brand new facility, correcting many of the flaws in the original Penn Central/NJDOT station. After meeting with Mayor James Kennedy and city officials, a design was chosen that would reestablish the station as a focal point for the central business district. Construction of the new station was completed in 1999 and was joined by a new public plaza in 2001. In April 2002, the plaza was recognized by Downtown New Jersey as the best new use of public space in New Jersey.
As of 2001, Rahway train station was serving an average of 2,644 passengers each day and is conveniently located along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. Both New York Penn Station and Trenton are only 35 minutes away by train from Rahway, and with the growth in passenger rail in New Jersey and throughout the nation, Rahway station may return as an important regional transportation hub.
Rahway Public Library
In 1797, the first library was established in the area now known as Rahway. The Bridgetown Library Company, or the Rahway Union Library, served as a private subscription library for those who could pay the entrance fee until about the mid-1830s.
In the late 1840's, a group of men collected 140 volumes for their own purposes. After several years, they turned the incipient library over to their wives, who founded the Rahway Library Association. Under the leadership of First Directress Catherine Craig Squier, the library opened to dues paying members in a schoolroom on Oliver Street on June 15, 1858.
Six years later, the library was enough of a success that the husbands of the women who ran the library were asked to file an incorporation petition with the state legislature. The Rahway Library Association was incorporated on June 15, 1864, and the shares immediately sold by the husbands to their wives (who were not legally allowed to incorporate, but could own). Mrs. Squire continued as First Directress, serving for forty-nine years until her death in 1913.
A library to house the growing collection was built in 1869 at the intersection of Irving and Seminary. The building, still standing today, is the second oldest building in the state specifically built as a library, and predates by over twenty years the well known Carnegie libraries. An addition was built in 1891.
Beginning in the 1870's, the library began receiving donations and bequests, the origins of today's library endowment. Income from the various bequests was for the purchase of books and keeping the library open extra hours. Today, plaques noting the origins and purposes of the different funds can be found at the ends of the book stacks.
From 1890 to 1902, the librarian (precursor of today's library director) was Carolyn Wells. Miss Wells, a Rahway native, began writing for children's magazines while working at the library, and became so successful that she resigned in order to pursue her literary career. When Carolyn Wells died in 1943, she had written over 160 books, and countless poems and articles.
In 1907, a department just for children was added to the library services, and eleven years later the library was opened to all residents of Rahway, not just subscribers. With the Depression, finances became precarious and donations were insufficient, so city funds were needed to keep the library running from 1931 on. At the general election of 1940, the people of Rahway voted to municipalize the library, and early in 1943, the trustees of the Rahway Library Association turned over its assets to the Trustees of the Free Public Library of the City of Rahway, today City funding accounts for 95% of the total budget of the library.
The library continued to grow, and by 1959, the Children's Department had to be moved out of the library and into the basement of City Hall. Within a few years, the library had its busiest year ever -- almost 140,000 items were checked out between the two sites in 1962.
In response to the crying need for more space and more modern facilities, a new building was constructed on the corner of Central and St. Georges Avenues. It opened to the public in 1967. In July 1997 the process of implementation of library automation was begun. On October 19, 1997 the Library turned on its computers and invited the residents of Rahway to this gala event. Also unveiled at this time was the Library's website.
Since 1858, the library in Rahway has grown from 140 books and a volunteer in one room to over 98,000 items and a staff of 24 in an 18,000 square foot building! Children's programs continue to be very popular and its innovative Teen Summer Reading Program was recognized in 1997 by the American Library Association as one of the fifty best activities for teens in this country.
In September 1999, the Library was struck by a tropical storm which rendered its building unusable, and it was eventually demolished in October 2000.
Construction was begun late in 2001on a new 32,000 sq. ft. state-of-the-art facility adjacent to the City Recreation Center at City Hall Plaza in downtown Rahway. The new library is part of a public/private multi-purpose building, expected to generate significant tax revenues from 40,000 sq. ft. of office space on the top two floors.
A ribbon cutting was held on March 20, and the library opened for service on March 22, 2004.
Rahway River
Encompassing 130 square miles, the Rahway River watershed is one of the oldest urbanized areas of the State of New Jersey stretching from Edison Township in Middlesex County north to the Oranges of Essex County and westward to the Watchung Ridges. Despite the man made landscape predominates the region, nature remains resilient with oases of wildlife and remarkable natural areas tucked in pockets along the various branches of the Rahway River.
The Rahway River is the quintessential urban river of New Jersey where nature gave way to the cradle of America’s industry and earliest cities.
Early colonists and seafarers spoke of the abundance of wildlife, a sea of meadows and mature forests that graced the shores of the Rahway River.
The Rahway River is 24 miles long and drains a land area of 41 square miles of Essex, Middlesex and Union counties.
There are 24 municipalities in the Rahway River watershed including Maplewood, Millburn, South Orange and West Orange in Essex County, Carteret and Edison in Middlesex County and Cranford, Mountainside, Springfield and Rahway in Union County.
The Rahway River consists of four distinct branches. The West Branch begins in Verona and flows south through South Mountain Reservation and directly through downtown Millburn. The East Branch originates between West Orange and Montclair and travels South Orange and Maplewood. These two branches converge near Route 78 in Springfield and flow through Clark, Cranford and Union. In Rahway, the confluence of the Robinson’s and the South Branches of the river occurs. The river continues through Linden and Carteret forming the boundary between Middlesex and Union counties and drains into the Arthur Kill.
The Rahway River is the source of drinking water for the 26,500 people in the City of Rahway.
Portions of the Rahway River are part of the East Coast Greenway, a 2,600 mile trail between Maine and Florida.
There is close to 5,000 acres of county parkland in the Rahway River watershed. Much of the Rahway River corridor in Essex and Union counties is public open space.
The lower Rahway River is tidal. The tidal portion of the river extends up into the City of Rahway. The upper portion of river corridor consists of floodplains, woodlands and freshwater wetlands while the lower portion consists of salt marshes and tidal flats.
The Rahway River watershed was the site of several Revolutionary War battles and engagements. Most notable among them were the Battle of Short Hills 1777 and in 1780 the Battle of Connecticut Farms in Union and the Battle of Springfield. There are many National Historic Sites associated with the American Revolution in the Rahway River watershed.
The Rahway River is home to four anatropous fish species (fish that spawn in freshwater and live in saltwater) and one species of catadromous fish species (fish that spawn in salt water and live in freshwater). There are plans to install a fish ladder at the Rahway City Water Works to aid these fish during their spawning migrations.
Portions of the Rahway River are stocked with 6,000 trout each year by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
The Rahway River’s woodlands and wetlands provide much needed wildlife habitat in the region. Bio Blitzes (a 24 hour biological inventory) conducted in 2005 and 2006 each documented the presence of nearly 700 species of plants and animals.
New Jersey Endangered Red headed Woodpeckers are found breeding in Rahway River Park.  Remnant Pine Barrens community with numerous globally rare and threatened species of plants are discovered thriving in the heart of the Ashbrook Swamp Reservation.  Centuries old trees and groves grace secret corners of Hanson Park in Cranford, Brightwood Park in Westfield and near Bloodgood Dam in Winfield Park.
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