The history of Rahway begins with the settlements of Elizabethtown and Woodbridge. The early settlers of those places were the founders of Rahway which began as outlying acreage and plantations.
The name “Rahwack” with several variants in spelling , appears to have been in use for this vicinity in very early days and is traditionally ascribed to an Indian chief who dwelt here.
By the 18th century, Rahway consisted of four distinct communities: Upper Rahway, Bridge Town, or Lower Rahway, Leesville, and Milton.
Throughout the War for Independence, Rahway was the scene of several skirmishes. In January 1777, the Battle of Spanktown, Rahway’s most notable battle, was fought on St. Georges Avenue in the vicinity of the Union County Park. The battle lasted twelve hours with the Americans getting the best of the British.
Although the origin of the name Spanktown is not certain, it appears the term was used in military communications when referring to this strategic area in the first half of 1777.
Abraham Clark, who lived on a farm north of Rahway, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. This important patriot is buried in the Rahway Cemetery.
Once a new nation, the individual states were given the authority to mint their own currency. In New Jersey, the first state mint was located in Rahway and it was here the first coin was struck bearing the inscription “E Pluribus Unum” (from many come one), words used on every U. S. coin today.
Indeed, Rahway must have prospered following the war, for in 1794 a French traveler recorded the following in his diary:
The winding layout of Rahway gives it an outstanding appearance. It is rich in charming situations, with pretty and diversified gardens and small clean houses that have the double character of town and country houses. There are fruit trees of all kinds; and the elegance of the women corresponds to the light caleches they drive. Everything about the place made us regret leaving, and impressed us unforgettably.
On April 9, 1804, at a town meeting held at John Anderson’s Tavern (now known as the Merchants and Drovers) Rahway Township was created. The area included all of present day Rahway and Clark and a portion of Westfield.
Perhaps the most noteworthy development of the 19th century was the construction of a railroad through Rahway in 1835. This development made Rahway a link on the new mass transportation route between Philadelphia and New York, and Rahway’s population mushroomed. By mid–century, Rahway had become known as “The Carriage City of the World,” boasting of no less than thirty- five carriage-related factories, shipping their products to Europe and throughout the south.
Rahway was incorporated as a city on March 12, 1858, yet half of the city was in Middlesex County and half in Union County. This was remedied by an Act of the Legislature in 1860 which placed the entirety of the city in Union County.
Having been engaged in manufacturing for two centuries, it was only natural that Rahway would become the home of several manufacturing giants of the 20th century including Merck, National Pneumatic, Purolator, Wheatena, Regina, and Quinn & Boden.
Rahway has also been called “home” by such notables as astronomer Carl Sagan, economist Milton Friedman and U.S. Senator Clifford Case.
Since World War II, Rahway, like many municipalities in the northeast, lost much of its industrial base as factory jobs shifted west, south, and overseas. Today, Rahway is a diverse community of 27, 346, that has been reinventing itself as it attempts to blend its rich historical tradition with its excitement for the future.