A Snapshot in Time
Raritan in 1891
Writing an article about what a small town was like 130 years ago would normally be quite a challenge for a historian. But for Raritan there are several excellent sources available to do this.

The first source is a short booklet from 1891 entitled Illustrated Somerville and Raritan. This has a description of Raritan as well as 10 of the oldest known photos of Raritan.

Another source is the local weekly newspaper The Unionist Gazette which is available on microfilm at the Bridgewater Library.

Lastly, a surviving detailed map from that time shows almost all the buildings and roads in town.
Raritan in 1891 was a manufacturing town that contained several factories, most of which were located along the river.

One of these factories had an exhaust pipe that was 140 feet tall and 25 feet wide. This served as the landmark for Raritan as it was visible for miles around.
The stand pipe was part of the
Somerville Water Company complex.
The population of Raritan was 3500 people - mostly Dutch, Slovak and Irish. The Italian community, which in later decades would come to dominate and define the town, had just started arriving.

The town was considered clean by the standards of the day. Efforts were made to keep the unpaved roads clean and passable. In the wet weather mud was removed.

The town of Raritan was linked commercially and socially with its larger, older neighbor Somerville. Some entertainment and specialty businesses were only available in Somerville.
The Cornell Mansion
still stands today
To get to Somerville from Raritan one could walk the mile or two, but a horse drawn stage coach went back and forth between the two towns.

Raritan resident John Frech owned a stage coach that made trips twice an hour. The fare from one town to the next was six cents.
For transportation beyond Somerville the train line ran along the same path going eastward as it does today. But back then there were additional train line connections that one could take.

For at Somerville another train line, now abandoned, would go to Flemington. Also, at Bound Brook another now defunct train line could take you to Philadelphia.
Raritan residents in 1891 thought they were living in modern times as many new inventions / utilities had recently been introduced. Running water had been installed a few years back into most homes. (Those who did not yet have water lines had to fetch pails of water from one of the four wells around town.) Gas lines had also been laid down and thus gas was available in most homes.

The telephone, another recent invention, was in its infancy with just a few in use. A telephone directory from that decade shows ten phones in Raritan. The Frelinghuysen Mansion (located where the PC Richard is today) was the only personal residence that had a phone. The other phones belonged to the Raritan Fire Department, and the factory businesses all had phones. There was one pay phone in town inside a jewelry store.
The Frelinghuysen home was
the only home with a telephone.
Another new marvel called electricity was starting to be used by the factories. Well attended classes were held to educate the public on this new utility.

This would be necessary as just two year later, in 1893, electricity would start coming into their homes.
The Kenyon Factory complex.
As for the factory businesses, the largest was the Raritan Woolen Mills which had two large buildings that were set a bit off the river. They employed approximately 500 people. Right on the river were building complexes for The Kenyon Brothers, who manufactured machinery, and the New Jersey Enamel Paint Company.

Also along the river was the Somerville Water Company which supplied water to the surrounding area. The Adair Flour Mill stood where the stone castle is today. On First Avenue, in a long red brick building that still stands today (next to Delucia Pizza), was The American Farm Implementation Company who made farm equipment.
This Raritan Woolen Mills building
burnt down in the 1950s.
Social activities revolved around the Churches which were the Methodist Church on Wall Street (no longer standing), The Third Reformed Church, and St. Bernards.

One popular celebration by the churches, that is no longer held today, was Childrens Day which was held the second week in June to honor children.
The Methodist Church
In an era with no radio or phonographs, music could only be heard by a live band.

A band from Raritan, the Crescent Cornet Band, often played at various events in town and sometimes just played right out on the street on an ordinary day. They were greatly appreciated by the Raritan residents. The band even encouraged people to attend their rehearsals. The Crescent Cornet Band was in demand and often traveled to play in other towns in New Jersey.
The Crescent Cornet Band
In 1891 the making of the later town of Raritan can be seen forming. For 1891 saw the creation of the first Italian Mutual Aid Society. Decades later these would be a prominent part of Raritan.

Also, the first police force for Raritan was formed in 1891. One officer would patrol the day and two would patrol the more devious night time. The train station depot which survives to today was built in 1891.
The train station depot
In 1891 it was decided that a new dual-purpose building would be needed for use by both the fire company for its vehicles and equipment and by the town officials for their offices.

The old buildings were in such bad shape that they were considered to be a poor representation of a good town such as Raritan. As result what we today call the Historic Firehouse on Anderson Street would be completed the next year.
The Firehouse was in poor condition.
On Somerset Street groceries and goods were available from Amerman and Reger, Dilts Brothers, and the Co-operative Store sponsored by the Woolen Mills. Business was brisk for them on factory pay days.

Horse drawn wagons delivering goods or selling goods were common in town. One novel business of its era was Gallagher and Richards Ice that provided blocks of ice for the ice boxes in the homes.

They had their own ice pond which fed off the canal. The only power source available to turn water into ice in those days was Mother Nature. Ice made in the winter was stored as best they could and for as long as they could for delivery in later warmer months.
One novel occupation of the era was the street lamp lighter. Gasoline driven street lights were stationed all over the town. They all had to be lit manually.

For fun, tennis had just become widely popular. There was a Raritan Lawn Tennis Club that had built several tennis courts.

Baseball was also popular, there were a few baseball fields scattered around town. There was a Raritan Gun Club that had a shooting range next to the railroad tracks.
Early Raritan Tennis Players
The canal, which extended for three miles west of town, was used in the summer for relaxed boating excursions and in the winter for skating.

Traveling circuses often visited the area. While they were always held in Somerville, the initial teaser parades that the circuses held to promote themselves would start in Raritan and go down the main street. Another popular entertainment show, shamefully the most popular type of the era, was the minstrel show featuring singers and dancers in blackface.
This Raritan Woolen Mills building
was knocked down 10 years ago.
Click to see more photos and some ads from 1891