Connecting the dots and dashes: How Morristown and Morris Township parted ways

Census map depicting Morris Township (yellow) and the 'hole in the doughnut,' Morristown (purple).
Census map depicting Morris Township (yellow) and the 'hole in the doughnut,' Morristown (purple).
Census map depicting Morris Township (yellow) and the 'hole in the doughnut,' Morristown (purple).
Census map depicting Morris Township (yellow) and the ‘hole in the doughnut,’ Morristown (purple).

By Margret Brady

Morristown is well known as the place where the dot-and-dash telegraph language was developed, but there is so much more to that story.

Few know why Morristown and Morris Township were separated in 1865, or how that was connected to the activities of Samuel Morse and Alfred and George Vail at the Speedwell Ironworks.

Splitting a community in two did not happen quickly or easily. It took the combined efforts of a group of friends and fellow Democrats to carve an independent 2.9-square-mile Morris County seat that retained the name Morristown from a much larger Morris Township.

Morse and Vail, inventors of the first 'instant message.' Image: Historic Speedwell
Samuel Morse and Aldred Vail, inventors of the first ‘instant message.’ Image: Historic Speedwell

Thereafter each entity would have its own boundaries and government, independent of each other.

It all began around 1843. George Vail was the son of industrialist Stephen Vail and the brother of Alfred Vail. He and Alfred were partners of Samuel Morse and were helping him perfect his idea for a machine that would enable cross-country communication.

George had become quite wealthy from the new railroads, made possible by his invention of an iron wheel for locomotives.

George’s sister Harriet was a widow. She lived with her brother­-in­-law, Augustus Cutler, on the neighboring estate. Cutler was the leader of the local Democratic party. George, also a Democrat, had been elected to serve in Congress. Cutler and his wife were passionate supporters of free public education for everyone and George supported their cause.

Morristown had many fine private schools but the public schools were small and inadequate. The Cutlers and George agreed that children of slaves, indentured servants and immigrant workers were entitled to a free public education.

Augustus, as head of the board of education, began to develop plans for a new high school. But they were unable to win support of those who felt that an educated population would result in a loss of cheap labor.

It was felt that the lower classes did not have the intelligence to learn. Outside the center of town there was little support for a new school that was considered a waste of money.

"This Magnificent Machine"
The first telegraph changed the world…as well as its birthplace.

In 1853, a man named George Cobb returned to Morristown, where he had been born, He had made a fortune as an iron broker and retired early.

Also a Democrat, he soon met Cutler and the Vails. A devout Methodist, he felt his fortune belonged to God and that it was his duty to use it for the betterment of mankind.

He was also quite clever and his funds helped carry out the plans of his friends, who wanted to create a community with opportunities for rich and poor alike.

The three men and their supporters spent the next decade creating boundaries of a new, smaller Morristown inhabited by fans of better schools and parks for everyone, near those who would receive the most benefit.

When they had sufficient land accumulated to sustain their plan, Cutler drafted the required legislation in 1865, and Morristown was incorporated as a separate community.

George Cobb was elected the first mayor of the new Morristown, that same year.

Margret Brady is a former councilwoman, a commissioner on the Morristown Parking Authority, and a local history buff.


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  1. Congratulations, Marge, on a terrific and very educational article. Please keep them coming!

  2. Amazing when you think that when Morris Township was sued to prevent it having separate schools in the 1970s.

  3. Thank you Marge for sharing this bit of history with us. It’s my hope that you might be willing to share your vast knowledge about the history of the town on a semi-regular basis with us. You could start at one end and work your way thru. Just a thought…