Imagine it’s 1856. You’re a very bright and promising 20-year-old man from a family of comfortable means who is attending a prestigious university where your father happens to be a trustee. What do you choose to do with your leisure time? Join a fraternity where pledges have to go through a hazing process that involves pain and humiliation? Not Henry Morton. He did something remarkably ambitious and outside-the-box with his talents and the privileges that came his way.
It seems that the University of Pennsylvania had recently been gifted a plaster cast of the Rosetta Stone, which at that point had not been fully translated into English. Some of the Egyptian characters had not been defined, even by experts in that field. So young Morton – whose academic gifts were primarily in art and the sciences, not languages – and two of his college buddies from a student organization called the Philomathean Society, Charles R. Hale and S. Huntington Jones, took it upon themselves to finish the job. It took them two years, but they did it – for fun, or for the intellectual challenge.
In 1858, as recent graduates, they published their findings in a gorgeous book, which Morton illustrated by drawing directly on stone: Report of the Committee Appointed by the Philomathean Society of the University of Pennsylvania to Translate the Inscription on the Rosetta Stone, the first complete and direct translation of the Greek, demotic and hieroglyphic inscriptions into English – and also the first American book to be printed entirely by lithography. They printed 400 copies, some of which survive (you can view a digitized copy here: https://bit.ly/2Pup3wb). Not bad for a senior project!
Henry Morton was valedictorian of his class, wrote original poetry for his graduation speech, went on to study law but quickly switched to a career in physics and chemistry, with a particular interest in the properties of fluorescence. In the early days of photography, he followed solar eclipses across the map to capture them on plates. He served on the US Lighthouse Board, conducting investigations on fog signals, electric lighting, fire extinguishers and illuminating buoys. He taught at the Episcopal Academy of Philadelphia and the Franklin Institute, co-founded the Philadelphia Dental College in 1863 and by 1869 had taken over the chemistry professorship at his alma mater. He experimented and published widely, and in 1874 was elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences.
In 1870 Morton became the first president of the newly founded Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey and used his own personal wealth to equip its labs with steam engines, tools and electrical equipment. During the latter decades of his life, once settled in at Stevens, he spent his summers in the Catskills, purchasing a grand “cottage” on Birch Creek Road in Pine Hill. His philanthropy extended to his new community: Morton endowed a number of small local projects, primarily roads and stone-arched bridges. And in 1897 he established the community’s first library; when it outgrew its original building, he made plans to build a fine new one on the west side of Elm Street, just south of Route 28.
Henry Morton died in 1902, the year before it was finished, but the library named for him still stands. Built in the Georgian Revival style, the one-and-a-half-story rectangular limestone structure features a red slate roof wrapped in a broad frieze and denticulated cornice supported by Ionic columns, with a brick chimney, two gabled dormer windows and a semicircular wing with a conical roof on its eastern side. Stacks and circulation desk occupy the main block and a reading room the east wing, with a fireplace in between and an iron spiral staircase leading to the attic.
The Morton Memorial Library in Pine Hill (not to be confused with the library of the same name in Rhinecliff, which is named after a different Morton) is open to the public Tuesday through Saturday. Hours vary from day to day; visit http://pinehilllibrary.org for details to plan your visit.