Located atop a natural gorge along the Whippany River, the Historic Speedwell preserves and displays part of the 7.5-acre Homestead Farm of Stephan Vail. With several early 19th century buildings on the open air farm, this National Historical Landmark transports visitors back to the 1800s and the time of the Industrial Revolution. Through guided tours, special exhibits, events, and much more, Historic Speedwell seeks to give history buffs an insider look into the Vail family’s home and work life throughout the 1800s. Furthermore, this site attracts thousands of visitors each year as it is home to the Factory, the very place where Stephan Vail’s son, Alfred, and Samuel F.B. Morse worked together to perfect the telegraph. Because of this work and the first demonstration of the telegraph on January 11, 1838, Historic Speedwell is widely known as the “Birthplace of the Telegraph.”
Backstory and Context
History of Historic Speedwell
Historic Speedwell dates back to the beginning of the 19th century, when Stephan Vail and two business partners established an ironworks on a gorge of the Whippany River. In 1830, Vail purchased about 40 acres of land adjacent to the ironworks, combining his industrial property and an agricultural, residential property. Before moving into his "Mansion House," in 1844, Stephen completed extensive renovations to the building.
Privately owned into the 20th century, by the 1960s, the property had shrunk and many of the buildings were falling into disrepair. Recognizing its historical significance, a group of concerned citizens banded together to save the property and open it as an historic site in 1969.
Museum Exhibits and Features
Today, the site has been preserved to replicate the time when Stephen Vail lived there, between 1840 and 1864. It offers guided tours of the historic Vail House and the National Historic Landmark Factory Building, where the electromagnetic telegraph was demonstrated to the public for the first time in 1838 by Alfred Vail (Stephen's son) and Samuel F.B. Morse. The museum also displays exhibits about water power, the SS Savannah (the first steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean), and the Speedwell Ironworks.
The Visitors Center is located in the historic L'Hommedieu House, an 18th century Morristown home moved to the site to save it from demolition. Inside, guests will find a gift shop, orientation area, and a changing exhibit gallery.
The Factory Building
Among the many buildings and exhibits on the homestead, the most popular and significant is undoubtedly the Factory, which became a National Historic Landmark in 1975. Today, the Factory Building provides education space for public programming and is the home to a three floor, interactive exhibit highlighting the telegraph project. Other items of interest in the Factory Building include machinery that Stephen installed in the 1840s, such as the grist mill, table saw, and sharpening stone.