In the early 19th century, entrepreneur Stephen Vail and several of his business associates purchased a property in Speedwell, NJ. Though the building already possessed a number of hydraulic powered forges, it would soon be refined into something historic. What became known as Speedwell Ironworks is responsible for some of the most important advances; in not only the iron industry, but also in communications. Its legacy makes it more than worthy of a place in our Jersey Through History series.
The property runs along a natural gorge of the Whippany River in Morris County; a prime location for an ironworks business. Vail and company produced an array of agricultural and industrial machinery. By 1815, Vail became the sole owner of Speedwell Ironworks; he also purchased an adjacent 40-acre lot known at the time as Speedwell Village. This village is now the site of Historic Speedwell in Morristown.
A few years after Vail took over the ironworks, he helped build the SS Savannah; this was the first steam-powered vessel to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Speedwell Ironworks manufactured the majority of the engine components and the running gear of the ship. Though it was an innovative production for all involved, the SS Savannah was considered a financial failure. This was mainly due to the lack of people willing to book passage. The ironworks, however, didn’t shy away from any task and even produced the first durable iron tire for trains.
Speedwell Ironworks and the Telegraph
In the late 1830s, Samuel F.B. Morse, came to Speedwell. Morse was a former professor and artist-inventor who was acquaintances with Alfred Vail, one of Stephen’s children. Alfred conducted much of the research for the invention of the telegraph; in fact, most of the work was done within the Speedwell Ironworks facilities. The duo ultimately chose the Factory Building on the grounds of Speedwell Village as the test site.
On January 11, 1838, Morse and Alfred conducted the first successful demonstration of the telegraph. The two inventors transmitted a message through two miles of wire; the message came from a county judge who wrote, “A patient waiter is no loser,” on a piece of paper.
Morse and Alfred Vail received federal funding from the US Congress in 1843. This allowed them to expand their telegraph system between Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, DC. By spring of the following year, they successfully completed their next major test; Morse, at the US Capital, sent Alfred, at a railroad station in Baltimore, a message; he wrote “What Hath God Wrought,” which Alfred returned a minute later.
While Morse and Alfred were redefining the world of communication, Stephen Vail continued to run Speedwell Ironworks. Vail eventually retired to the Vail House at Speedwell Village in 1844. The ironworks changed hands several times and continued to run until 1873; in its final years, the demand for their products declined, causing the facilities to close. Any valuable equipment was sold to ironworks in both Brooklyn, New York and Coatbridge, Scotland. What was left of the desolate complex was destroyed in a fire in 1908.
Historic Speedwell in Modern Time
Today, Historic Speedwell is both a National Historic Landmark and part of the Morris County Park Commission. The property houses nine buildings, each modeled to authentically replicate life at Speedwell Ironworks during its run. In particular, the Vail House was renovated and returned to its mid-19th century state; as one of the most notable buildings in Speedwell, it has retained much of the Vails’ old furniture and possessions.
Historic Speedwell is open throughout spring, summer and fall. Guests who visit the property can wander through a number of buildings. The L’Hommedieu House contains the Friends of Historic Speedwell Gift Shop and exhibit gallery; there’s also the Granary, the 1849 Carriage House, and the Homestead Carriage House. In addition, the adjoined Factory Building and Wheelhouse offer tourists state-of-the-art, interactive exhibits; these presentations show the invention of the telegraphs and recreate the sounds and feel of life at the facilities. The only interiors not open to the public are the Ford Cottage and Moses Estey House.
Historic Speedwell, located off of Speedwell Avenue and Cory Road, is a fascinating look into Morris County history. In particular, Speedwell Ironworks is an important piece of New Jersey’s historical legacy. As the birthplace of the telegraph and such grandiose machinery as the SS Savannah, it is a “uniquely American story.”
Of course, be sure to check back next month as we continue our Jersey Through History series. In the meantime, don’t miss last month’s look at the Deserted Village of Feltville.
- Hero (Top) Feature Image (& Additional Images): © Patrick Lombardi / Best of NJ