Letter to the Editor: Preserve Cranford's Past With Historic District
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Editor's Note: This piece was written by Cranford resident Victor Bary and has not been edited.
To help preserve a significant period in Cranford's history - when the town was the "Venice of New Jersey," one of the early suburbs of New York, the Historic Preservation Advisory Board (HPAB) is proposing the creation of the North Cranford Historic District (NCHD). Encompassing neighborhoods around the Rahway River where the town started, the area contains many of the houses built from about 1850 to 1920 that provide the character and historical feel of our town. The information assembled in support of the NCHD will provide the Zoning Board with tools for making decisions on requested demolitions of houses within the District.
HPAB is starting with this area since it was the first part of town to be developed. Rail service through Cranford was first provided in 1838 by the Elizabethtown and Sommerville Railroad (forerunner of the Central Railroad of New Jersey), but had little immediate impact Cranford's development. That development really began with the 1861 completion of a railroad bridge across Newark Bay, connecting the Central Railroad of New Jersey for travelers from New York.
One of the first people who came from New York to Craneville (as it was known then) was Sylvester Cahill, who bought a 51 acre farm east of the Rahway River in 1861. Josiah Crane sold his 37-acres of apple orchards in 1864 to Alden Bigelow, a brother of Mrs. Cahill. Alden was joined by brothers William & Charles Bigelow in forming the firm of Dayton, Eastman, and Bigelow, who then developed the land for residential dwellings.
The village that became Cranford was first laid out by these developers in 1865. It consisted of a two block square between Holly Street and Union Avenue. Alden Street (named for Alden Bigelow) bounded one side and Springfield Avenue was opened straight through to Union Avenue to form the square street grid. The developers built more than 30 residences within this area.
This initial development was followed by the development of Central Avenue by Dr. Phineas P. Lounsbury, inventor of "Dr. Lounsbury's Malt Extract" patent medicine. In 1870, Forest Avenue was built parallel to the Rahway River, and Cranford Avenue was built from Forest Avenue over to Elizabeth Avenue by Sylvester Cahill. By the time Cranford was incorporated in 1871 it boasted an adult population of 600, ten times the number it had in 1850.
Development at this time was driven by the explosion in railroad-building occasioned by the Civil War (1861-1865), and continued after the War. This rapid development came to an abrupt halt in 1873 due to a national Depression which lasted seven years. The impact on Cranford development was immediate. Development of Cranford stalled, many properties went into foreclosure and reverted to the original owners. In fact, fifty gas lamps ordered by the township in 1872 to light the NCHD area along North Avenue weren't delivered and paid for until 1884.
As the national economy recovered, the NCHD area of Cranford enjoyed a period of rapid development through the late 1880s and 1890s. This development continued in spite of a national Depression from 1893-1898, precipitated by the failure of a number of railroads.
During this period a number of prominent public structures which no longer stand were completed. The Cranford Casino was originally built in 1892 and rebuilt in 1896 after a fire, but was later razed. The Opera House and the block that housed it on North Union Avenue between Eastman and North Avenues were built in 1892, but were destroyed by fire in 1912. Hayashi's Restaurant, Cranford's most popular restaurant, was built by expanding the former home of Dr J.K. MacConnell late in the 19th century, stood at the intersection of Miln Street and North Avenue, the site of today's Post Office. And, the Grant School, which was demolished in 1975, was built in 1898 at the corner of Holly Street and Springfield Avenue, replacing an earlier wooden school built on the same plot in 1867.
Many of the private residences still stand. Among them are houses designed by Frank Lent on Cranford Avenue, Madison Avenue, Hamilton Avenue, and Claremont Place.
As the 20th Century dawned, Cranford stood poised for development beyond its original NCHD footprint, served by 27 trains to and from New York daily, and boasting social enhancements such as the Boating Club (1889) and annual River Carnival (1890) which led to its crowning itself the "Venice of New Jersey".
More information on the North Cranford Historical District can be found in the exhibit sponsored by the Historic Preservation Advisory Board which runs for the month of November at the Cranford Public Library. More details are also on the HPAB internet site, www.preservecranford.com .