Rahway River activity gives Cranford its moniker: “Venice of New Jersey”
Annual river carnivals drew tremendous crowds with decorated boats, races and celebrations
On Oct. 10, Cranford residents will celebrate with the first Pedal Paddle Fun day, an all-day event of canoe races, rubber ducky races, bike rides and more including Hanson Park and the Rahway River.
While it may be the first Pedal Paddle Fun event, the day's activities harken to the turn of the century, in that Cranford had regular and well known events and celebrations all on the river. The Rahway River activity was so pronounced that Cranford became known as the "Venice of New Jersey," a nickname still used in descriptors of the town.
The Rahway runs through Cranford and has long been at the center of leisure, commerce and celebration for the area. Its banks are close to Hanson Park, where the Cranford Canoe Club has sat busily for more than 100 years, allowing patrons to explore the river, whether by canoe or kayak.
While the river may be an opportunity to connect with nature, at the turn of the century Cranford was busy celebrating the waterway in riverside parties and even parades.
Lawrence P. Fuhro, Cranford Historian, wrote in 2005 on Hometown Memories that "Cranford in the late 19th Century was a town that revolved around and reveled in the river. Annual river carnivals were held, complete with floats (literally), decorated canoes, and marching bands."
The New York Times makes mention of these tremendous events on the river, in a Feb. 4, 1912 article: "by virtue of the river carnival, which in July summons gaily decorated canoes and other light craft to the narrow course of the Rahway, the town has been called the 'Venice of New Jersey.'"
Earlier, an 1886 New York Times article states the erection of a dam changed the riverbank so that "the residents of the town have discovered that they have a better Summer pleasure ground at their own doors than they can find in a day's travel, and they are making the most of it."
That year, river activity swelled from a handful of boats previously to "now somewhere between fifty and a hundred, rustic piers and bridges have been built, and every afternoon and evening the river is by all means the liveliest part of the town."
A Saturday afternoon brought out half the town for a regatta on the river. The following Saturday saw a "grand evening carnival, something on the Venetian order" in its grandeur, the New York Times reported.
The archives of the Cranford Chronicle in the 1900's refer to the largescale carnival in editions during the summer, noting that the Cranford library will close because everyone will be at the river carnival. The July 8, 1909 edition warns "The carnival on Saturday night will undoubtedly draw a large crowd of visitors." That year an informal dance, post-carnival was held, too, denoting the event became one of town-wide revelry of both land and water.
A page four article predicted the 1909 river carnival would "promise to be the largest in the history of our town." At that point, 75 canoes were entered in the carnival, but there were "very bright prospects for over one hundred" canoes to emerge for the total tally of that year's festivities.
The activities of the river carnival were centered around the Cranford Canoe Club, whose "boys have been working hard" to prepare for the carnival. The club dock also hosted the 7th Regiment National Guard bands and the Imperial Military Band of Plainfield played at Sperry's Park.
The carnival began with a ready gun at 7:15 p.m., as boats formed in a line at the club dock, the ready gun was shot at 8 p.m. in a race that led paddlers downstream to the dam, to Eastman street bridge, turning the stake, and then back to the dock before repeating for a second lap. Judges were stationed at the finish line of the canoe club veranda to judge which vessels were the "most beautifully decorated and novel," wrote the Chronicle. Prizewinners for these two classes would get such trophies as an Old Town 16 foot canoe and a silver mounted silk umbrella.
Prizes were also awarded for the best decorated river bank along the course of the parade of boats. At the time the Rahway was lined with businesses as well as private homes, and the winner of the best decorated riverbank would get a new set of paddles.
The integrity of the parade was maintained by appointed lieutenants, who made sure only decorated canoes were entered into the parade.
According to the 1886 New York Times article, the carnival's decorations illuminated the night: "nearly a hundred boats will be gaily decorated with Chinese lanterns, the river banks will be illuminated with colored lights, the bridges will be lit up, there will be bands of music and a display of fireworks."
Fuhro wrote in his 2005 history: "After viewing one of these extravaganzas, Roselle resident William Sulzer, who later became Governor of New York, remarked that Cranford and its river were a veritable Venice. The Township soon became known and promoted by the slogan 'The Venice of New Jersey'."
The New York Times 1886 article described the scene as such: "Visitors from the neighboring towns are to be cordially welcomes, and they will be likely to see as pretty and brilliant a sight as any one could desire."