Rahway River

Suburban Stream with Hidden Wrath

Jesse Fried • Jun 14, 2017

The Rahway River drains a portion of Essex County, much of Union County, and some of Middlesex County, emptying out into the Kill Van Kull amongst oil refineries.

At the top of its watershed, in Essex County, it is in two branches. The west branch starts at the crest of the Watchung Mountains in Crystal Lake, a pond off of Mt Pleasant Ave in West Orange. It is a surprisingly nice river, passing mostly through public parkland such as the South Mountain Reservation, and impounded at the scenic East Orange Reservoir and a few smaller former mill ponds, which I think are stocked with trout. It's a bit rocky and flows somewhat quickly. The east branch starts at an indeterminate spot under some concrete in or near Orange. It is a thoroughly urban/suburban stream, mostly staying inconspicuous except for occasional flash floods. The two branches flow in parallel to the south, following the straight contours of the Watchung Mountains' ridges.

They East and West branch converge at the gap in the Watchung Mountains in Millburn. The point of their union seems to be exactly underneath Route 78, in a concrete drainage structure.

Below Route 78, the Rahway flattens and continues south through Springfield, Kennilworth and Cranford. In Kennilworth, Nomahegan Brook, which drains the east slopes of the Southern Watchung Mountains, joins it. For most of this stretch, the river is surrounded by wooded parks. I would guess that suburban developers were wary of flooding. The landscape actually gets quite wild up here, with lush bottomland forest of pin oaks, red maple and sweet gum, and wildlife such as herons, egrets and deer. In downtown Cranford, a dam holds back a long winding stretch of still water, with suburban backyards lining the banks. There is a canoe rental place in this neighborhood, the town-run Cranford Canoe Club. It's possible to rent a boat and paddle upstream into the wooded area, though fallen trees across the stream and shallow sections are hazards.

Below Cranford, I'm not too sure what happens. In summary, the Rahway winds, turns east, becomes a tidal estuary, passes the town of Rahway and some oil refineries in the heavily industrialized lowlands of Central Jersey, and empties into the Kill Van Kull. The Parkway and Turnpike both cross it, the latter near its mouth.

Usually a quiet stream, the Rahway is notorious for flodding after heavy rains. In 1999, during Tropical Storm Floyd, it overflowed its banks and caused extensive property damage in Millburn and Union, and probably other places too. Downtown Millburn was under several feet of water. Subsequently its banks were built-up with concrete and stone.

What would on the surface appear to be an easily forgotten suburban stream is quite wild, and occasionally wrathful.