Iron Working | The Vails | Growth & Innovation | Prosperity | Ironworkers | Decline | Since 1874

Stephen Vail, by Samuel F. B. Morse - clidk for a larger view !Historic Speedwell preserves the Morristown estate of Stephen Vail, owner of the Speedwell Ironworks. During the 19th century, the Speedwell Ironworks became a major industrial center in northern New Jersey due to the hard work and foresight of Stephen Vail, who began his career as a blacksmith and became a prosperous ironmaster.

The John H. Culbertson Memorial Exhibition, housed in the Old Carriage House, illustrates how Speedwell developed, owing to the growth of mechanical technology and Stephen Vail's involvement in a complex business network. The workers at the Ironworks, their families, the Vails, and their interactions also played an integral role in the development of the business and homestead estate.

Today the millrace is gone, the buildings are leveled, and little remains of the Speedwell Iron Works. But Stephen Vail's diaries, letters, and business papers, as well as maps, sketches, and photos bring Speedwell alive once again, and illustrate its development from a small nail-producing mill to a dynamic industrial complex. The documents and artifacts also reveal the lively interplay between the Ironworks and the people who lived and worked at Speedwell.

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Iron Working

The process of forging iron has remained the same for centuries. Iron ore was mined, then smelted into bars and "pigs." Refined bars (melted raw iron with the impurities removed) were purchased by Stephen Vail and heated on a forge. Unlike cast iron, forged iron never achieved a liquid consistency. Forged iron was heated until it became malleable and could be hammered or wrought into the desired shape.

Stephen Vail cast iron objects at his own ironworks and at other foundries. The iron was heated to a liquid state and poured or cast into moulds. After cooling, the iron became hard, brittle and unworkable. The objects cast at the Speedwell Iron Works ranged in size from 8 inches to 8 feet in diameter. The 1853 waterwheel, found in the wheelhouse at Speedwell, is an example of the cast iron products made by the Vail family.

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The Vails

The entrepreneurial spirit of Stephen Vail and his sons, Alfred and George, was the driving force behind the success of the Speedwell Iron Works. Father and sons all assisted in the technical expertise and financial development of this family business. The Vails' contributions to mechanical inventions, early communication, the transportation industry, and mass production placed Speedwell at the cutting edge of the American Industrial Revolution.

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Growth and Innovation

As the business prospered at Speedwell, Stephen expanded the ironworks. Stephen also purchased the farm across the road, making Speedwell an industrial-agricultural complex. When younger son George Vail became a partner, the ironworks was renamed S. Vail & Son. During that time, the business' list of products included more sophisticated mechanical apparati such as papermaking machinery and equipment for the fledgeling railroad industry.

The Vails' business involvement extended beyond the Speedwell ironworks. Stephen Vail financed his son Gorge's investment in a partnership in the Baldwin Locomotive Works from 1839 - 1842. The Philadelphia firm was known as Baldwin, Vail & Hufty.

The Vails improved their skills through experience, visiting and discussing projects with other craftsmen, and reading trade journals. Organizations like the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and the American Institute in New York encouraged the gathering of talented mechanics and the demonstration of their new inventions. Thye vitality of these industrialists is reflected in their ability to tackle new technological challenges - the Vails were premier problem-solvers.

In 1835-36, Stephen Vail worked to develop a durable iron tyre for railroad locomotives. Many mechanics approached the problem of how to design and cast a tyre which would not break under the weight of a moving locomotive. On January 27, 1836, after much trial and error, Stephen found a solution to this hazardous problem. "The Speedwell Works ... was for a time the only maker of locomotives tires."


Even before the opening of the Morris Canal, Stephen Vail recognized the potential of rail transportation. By 1835, Vail & Son was producing machinery parts for railroad engines. In 1838, the Vails accepted a partially completed locomotive from M. Baldwin in payment for a debt. The completed engine was named "The Speedwell," and subsequently sold to the Morris & Essex Railroad.

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Prosperity & A Complex Web of Business Associations

The Vails were part of a complex business network comprised of other industrial innovators, mechanics, and businessmen. Each played an important role, whether it be supplier of raw materials, manufacturer of specific products, or consumer of these products. They knew one another by reputation and through working together on specific projects. These men learned their trade as apprentices or by working in the family business. As their success and prosperity grew, this small group continued to work together and expanded their business, political, and social connections.

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The Iron Workers at Speedwell

In 1853, at the height of the most prosperous period at Speedwell, the New York Daily Tribune noted that the Iron Works employed 45 men, including moulders, blacksmiths, machinists, and common laborers. The works also employed carpenters, millworkers, clerks and apprentices. The group worked together on routine jobs, performing both skilled and unskilled tasks, as well as an increasing number of specialized projects that challenged the inventiveness of the employees.

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G. Vail & Co.The Period of Decline

In the 1850's, the Speedwell Iron Works was riding the crest of success as a manufacturing enterprise. The firm was known as G. Vail & Co. after 1844; however, George Vail became increasingly involved in political activities, and probably left the day-to-day management of the firm to his nephew Isaac Canfield and his stepbrother, John H. Lidgerwood. Eventually, the firm became known as "Canfield & Lidgerwood, successors to G. Vail & Co."

By the 1870s, the New Jersey iron industry began to decline. The center of the industry shifted westward closer to the sources of fuel and raw materials. The water level of the Whippany River declined in the late 19th century, decreasing the waterpower available to the Iron Works and leading to its 1873 closure. In 1876 the equipment was sold and shipped to ironworks in Coatbridge, Scotland and in Brooklyn, New York.

George Vail

George Vail became politically active in the 1840s, serving in the New Jersey Legislature from 1843-44. The political cartoon above dates from 1850, when George ran unsuccessfully for Congress. Surrounded by tools, patterns and drawings, with the Iron Works smoking in the background, Vail identified himself as "blacksmith, engineer, and manufacturer." In 1852, George Vail was elected to the House of Representatives and served two terms in Washington, D.C.

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From 1874 to the Present

After 1876, the buildings of the Speedwell Iron Works decayed slowly, until a 1908 fire destroyed all byt two portions of the Iron Works' walls. These remains can be seen at the foot of the falls of Speedwell Lake (across Route 202 from Historic Speedwell). This area is now maintained as a public park by the Town of Morristown. The gradual decline of the homestead estate ended in 1967, when the museum was founded to restore the site. Research continues at Speedwell to locate and examine artifacts and documents that can tell us more about the work and workers at the Speedwell Iron Works.

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The Casting Shop, 1850 - click for a larger view!


The Speedwell Iron Works: A History of Workers and Work
The John H. Culbertson Memorial Exhibition
was made possible by a grant from The F. M. Kirby Foundation

Research funds were provided by the New Jersey Historical Commission, Department of State, Grant Program.
Research and text by Joanne T. Catlett, Michelle A. Clair, Sarah E. Henrich, Donna Ostraszewski, Cynthia Sanford, and Dorothy Truman.
Special thanks to Harold Benz, Sheila Brodhead, Richard S. Clair, Grace K. Culbertson, Herbert J. Githens, and Edward Rutsch
The catalog was made possible by a grant from The Armco Foundation