Known at the turn of the century as the Venice of New Jersey, the Union County Township of Cranford grew up around the meandering Rahway River. In 1720, John Crane of nearby Elizabeth Towne (now Elizabeth) built a grist mill on the north side of a ford in the river and a sawmill on the south side. That mill at Crane's Ford provided grain for Washington's troops during the Revolution.
Cranford remained a backwater until 1838, when the Elizabethtown and Somerville Railroad made it accessible to New York City. "The railroad and the river led to Cranford's development, first as a recreation center and later as a commuter suburb of New York City," said Lawrence P. Fuhro, president of the Cranford Historical Society.
In 1871 Cranford was incorporated as a township and "by 1885," Mr. Fuhro said, "76 residents commuted daily to New York City." For many who built their homes along Rahway, the river quickly lost its charm. There was frequent flooding until the late 1970's, when the town, with aid from the Army Corps of Engineers and several state agencies, built detention basins and dredged the river.
The most important of the many historic buildings is the 1740 Williams Droescher Mill, on Lincoln Avenue. Now owned by a messenger sevice used as an office building, it is the oldest continuously operated commercial building in New Jersey. Its cast-iron water turbine is still in place.