Morgan College: An Educational First

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2001 issue of Pioneer Magazine

Founded on January 1, 1867, Morgan Commercial College quickly became the first successful educational institution in Utah or the Intermountain West that taught subjects above the grammar grades. The first facility occupied two rooms on two floors of a downtown Salt Lake City building; the school’s curriculum that first year included bookkeeping, grammar, spelling, mental and physical arithmetic, commercial and international law; and business correspondence.

Since , which was coeducational (although male and female students were separated during their school and study periods), was the only school in the territory that offered an above elementary school, it immediately gained popularity Within a short time, Morgan began looking for larger facilities, a search he would repeat several times in the next few years.

Morgan financed the school by selling scholarships, and a scholarship permitted the holder to attend the school. Scholarships were sold for $15 for a quarter (three months) or $35 for a lifetime scholarship.

Morgan College featured revolutionary teaching methods that were extremely practical. Most of the coursew?ork was based on individual effort and work. Two students could take the same course, and one of them could complete the course in six months, while the second one could take two years to reach the same objective.

Students were given spelling and math books and instructed to master certain sections of the book. When they felt prepared, they could take the test. Whenever they had questions or needed assistance, it was readily available front school professors.

The school offered hands-on experience; inside its walls were grocery stores, dry goods stores, brokerage houses, and a bank, all in miniature. If a student was studying business and wanted to learn how to run a grocery store, he would run the grocery store at Morgan College. He would buy and sell merchandise, conduct sales, keep the books, and learn all other aspects of the business.

The Morgan bank operated just like a real bank. It used paper money, but inside the school, that money was treated as real currency. The dry goods store operated on a small scale (small pieces of cloth represented bolts of cloth, etc.), but each facility essentially operated just as it would in real life- Another Morgan College hallmark was lectures presented by eminent businessmen in the community.

One report on the college stated that many of those who attended felt that as far as qualifying oneself for a vocation in life, a person could get more knowledge and practical experience in a few months at Morgan than students decades later received in the same number of years! That is certainly high praise.

Tests were administered every three weeks, and students could not progress without passing required examinations. Once again, one student might speed through a course in only three weeks, while another student may take months before moving on to the next section of study

After barely a year of operation, the school once again moved locations to a larger facility in January 1868, This new facility would eventually house the community’s first library and reading rooms, another milestone for both Morgan and Salt Lake City. Students from all over the territory flocked to attend the prestigious school, and student rosters included many names recognized as members of prominent community and Church families.

In the summer of 1870, John Morgan built another structure to house his ever growing college; the name of the school changed that year as well to Morgan Commercial College and Normal School. The school was universally recognized as the finest educational institution in the territory The a 1 most-instant success of Morgan College caught the attention of LDS Church leaders, who had several years earlier established the University of Deseret. That school, however, had floundered and quietly closed its doors. Later, the university was revived in December of 1867, primarily because of the success of Morgan College. Interestingly, John Morgan spent a year teaching at the University of Deseret, while still administering at Morgan College,

With John Morgan’s departure from the school in 1875 and the steady expansion of the University of Deseret (which would later become the University of Utah), Morgan Commercial College and Normal School gradually decreased in size and importance. The school closed its doors in the late 70s but not before literally making history in more ways than one.


In 1969, a granite monument was erected at 257 5, Main, the site of the final Morgan Commercial College and Normal School. The monument memorialized John Morgan and the school.

Through the years, the monument has seen a variety of mishaps, including the loss of the bust of Morgan, which was sculpted by Ortho Fairbanks and sat atop the impressive memorial. Fortunately, the bust showed up sometime later, and the monument was restored.

During recent construction, however, the monument had to be removed. Today, it is located on Main Street between 200 and 300 South in downtown Salt Lake City.

Notable Students of Morgan Commercial College

Heber J. Grant became an expert penman, developing a skill that enabled him to earn many dollars to assist his widowed mother and to later teach penmanship at the University of Utah. He learned his penmanship at the Morgan Commercial College from James L. Townsend. In a letter to the family of Elder John Morgan, Grant wrote; “He (John Morgan) was very popular with his students, As a boy of about fifteen years of age, as I remember it, I visited the school and became acquainted with this professor of penmanship, Brother Townsend—James L. Townsend—-and he was a very fine penman indeed, and it was a great pleasure to me to have him write out a few lines and copied them over and over again. I owe a debt of gratitude to Brother Townsend for helping me to become a good penman.”

Brigham H. Roberts emigrated to Utah in 1866, In his remarks at the funeral of Helen Groesgeck Morgan, he said: “Of course, there are some of us these days who have some recollection, perhaps of the friendship that I have always enjoyed in my relations to John Morgan. I went for a short time to his night school. I couldn’t afford to go to day school, hut I did get an opportunity to go for a few nights and expected to continue for quite a number of months.” Roberts was appointed to the presidency of the Southern States under the direction of Elder John Morgan. He labored in England for nearly two years and was the assistant editor of the Millenial Star newspaper. B.H. Roberts became one of the most voluminous writers in the Church, and his works are esteemed today.

Ira N. Hinckley was one of the seven oldest children of Ira Nathaniel A Hinckley sent from Cove Fort to the Morgan Commercial College* In the history of Ira Noble Hinckley in the Daughters of Utah Pioneers Museum Library, Ira Noble writes: “He (Ira Nathaniel Hinckley) was very desirous Ira N. Hinckley that his children should have an education, and spent a lot of money for this purpose. He bought Lucian and I ‘Life Scholarships.’ The two of us came to Salt Lake and boarded with Aunt Em (mother’s sister). Mother came later and kept the boys and girls while they went to the John Morgan School. She was very kind to us boys, and took great pains to dress us and keep us looking well One day she took me with her and bought me a pair of new’ shoes. They were so tight they nearly killed me. She greased my head to make me look fine. It was the custom in those days to keep the hair well greased. Being away from home at school, I lacked the usual fine-combing and attention due me and had unknowingly contracted lice. They attacked the grease put on my head and made it itch intensely but I was too proud to scratch while on parade. How I did suffer for looks! Head and feet both hurt so!”

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