It’s hard to believe that the small city of Rahway, New Jersey, can pack so much history into only four square miles. Stroll down to the corner of St. Georges and Westfield Avenues, for example, to the Merchants’and Drovers’ Tavern, built in 1795. Across the street a marker 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.
Europeans began to settle in Rahway in 1664, when they purchased the land from its Native American inhabitants (the town is named after a tribal chief). The Clark House, built in 1690, is one of the oldest buildings in the state.
Although founded long ago, Rahway is by no means far away. The city is actually part of the New York metropolitan area, only 15 miles southwest of Manhattan and five miles west of Staten Island. Its growth was due to its ideal location along a major stagecoach route (later along the railroad tracks) between New York City and Philadelphia and on the navigable Rahway River.
Residents of Rahway enjoy a wealth of city parks, including Rahway River Park, which offers baseball fields, picnic areas, a lake and a public pool. But their biggest asset may be indoor entertainment: the restored Rahway Theater, another historic landmark and the cornerstone of the Rahway Arts District. Now known as the Union County Performing Arts Center, this 1300-seat vintage playhouse has had a vital role in the revitalization and cultural renaissance of the city.
Opening night for this classic, million-dollar movie palace was October 16, 1928 when the city was introduced to the magnificent $20,000 Wurlitzer pipe organ before the double feature. Since the theater’s first restoration, the organ has been played regularly, and frequently recorded by celebrity organists. Because of its enormous sound, though small size, it has become known as the “Biggest Little Wurlitzer.”
The theater is listed on both the National and State Registers of Historic Places and is now operating as Rahway’s multi-purpose venue for the performing arts.