Historic Speedwell: The Birthplace Of The Telegraph


When I mentioned to my kids we’d be going to a museum on a day off from school, they weren’t thrilled, but Historic Speedwell in Morristown was different. It’s known as the “Birthplace of the Telegraph,” and with interactive displays about communication, it’s an ideal place to learn about Morristown’s role in the Industrial Revolution. From watching the 24-foot water wheel spin to learning about Morse code, the kids had a blast exploring what life was like in the mid-19th century and happily learned a lot along the way. Read on for more on what we did, and while you’re in Morristown, be sure to check out all the other historic places in town. (featured photo credit: NJ MOM)

Historic Speedwell museum

The Historic Speedwell Museum is full of interesting information about the Ironworks, the telegraph, and 19th-century living. Photo Credit: NJ MOM

History lessons learned

Historic Speedwell is a multi-building village that captures the flavor of life in the mid-19th century when Speedwell Ironworks flourished and produced much of the iron used for railroads. When we arrived at the village, the kids were curious and wanted to explore every building on the property. Our first stop was at the Ford Cottage, which was built by Gabriel Ford Jr., grandson of Col. Jacob Ford Sr., who built the mansion that George Washington used for his headquarters down the road in Morristown. We checked it from the outside since it’s a private residence. Our next stop was the L’Hommedieu House, which embodies late 18th/early 19th-century architecture and houses the Visitor’s Center, exhibits, and a gift shop. We made our way past the Moses Estey House, where a veteran from the American Revolution once lived, and has a bright orange door (not open for visitors). Finally, we came upon the Homestead Carriage House, which houses a mini museum all about the Speedwell Ironworks that used to be on the property, where we even got to try to lift “pig iron” to test our own strength. We also walked by the Vail House, which was owned by Stephen Vail, the owner of the Speedwell Ironworks, and offers guided tours of the period rooms during specific times. 

historic speedwell visit

The kids were interested in learning about the telegraph. Photo Credit: NJ MOM

The “Birthplace of the Telegraph”

After a walk through the village, we entered the main Factory Building in 1838 (one of the few National Historic Landmark buildings in Morris County). It’s where Stephen Vail’s son, Alfred, and Samuel F.B. Morse perfected the electromagnetic telegraph and sent the first telegraphed message. Now, the Factory Building houses a new hands-on telegraph exhibit, which was exciting and interactive, and the kids loved exploring the nooks and crannies on the three floors. We were excited to see how the 1837 telegraphed worked, decipher the Morse Code, and learn how communication has changed. The kids were also interested in seeing how the telegraph is related to the modern communication of text messaging today. For example, “73” on a telegraph was another way of saying “Best Regards,” and “TU” was another way of saying “Thank you,” much like the way shorthand and emojis are used in texts to communicate. After we explored, we headed to observe the 24-foot working waterwheel attached to the factory building, where we could hear the water splashing through the wheel in the wheelhouse. We all agreed it was an incredible sight to see. 

Historic Speedwell waterfall

Across the street from the Historic Speedwell is Speedwell Lake Park. Photo Credit: NJ MOM

Historic Speedwell Park

Across the street from the Historic Speedwell is Speedwell Park, featuring a waterfall, playground, and Patriots’ Path. Patriots’ Path has more than 70 miles of hiking, cycling, and riding trails along the corridors of the Whippany and Black Rivers and the South Branch of the Raritan River. We decided to explore some of the paths, and the kids wanted to check out the playground. They declared the waterfall was their favorite spot to visit, and it was bustling with some fishermen fishing by the falls, and a couple was posing for a photoshoot. Overall, the park was great for the kids to let out some extra energy.

Historic Speedwell wheel

The 24-foot waterwheel is exciting to see in action. Photo Credit: NJ MOM

What to know before you go

The Historic Speedwell is open seasonally from April 1 to October 31 on Thursdays—Saturdays from 10 AM-4 PM (the last admission is at 3 PM). It is recommended to start your visit at the L’Hommedieu House, which features exhibits, a gift shop, a meeting space, and restrooms. Admission to the Historic Speedwell is $5 per person, and 5 and under are free (prices fluctuate during special events). The admission price includes permanent exhibits like the telegraph exhibit, Speedwell Ironworks, historic demos and crafts with the staff, and a guided tour of the Vail House, which features fully furnished period rooms. It is easy to get around most of the grounds with a stroller; however, the telegraph exhibit is on three floors and is not stroller-friendly. Events can happen at the Speedwell throughout the year, so check on social media before your visit. 

For more information, visit the Historic Speedwell on their website, Instagram and Facebook.

Historic Speedwell
333 Speedwell Avenue
Morristown, NJ 07960

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About Author

Melanie Bodner has always had a love for writing, but now she has a new love…being a mom. Before having her kids, Melanie was no stranger to writing or working with children. She wrote for a local newspaper as a reporter and taught English and Dance in a public school. Now Melanie enjoys spending time with her kids, doing yoga, writing and decorating her home. Check out her Instagram @burlapbythebeach.