The Civil War was raging in July 1862 when President Abraham Lincoln signed a law offering federal lands to each state to help establish public colleges for working-class Americans.

The Morrill Act with Lincoln's signature went on public display Wednesday at the Museum of the Rockies, after traveling from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., to Bozeman. It is one of the archives' 100 "milestone documents" of U.S. history.

Its arrival coincides with next week's celebration of the inauguration of Waded Cruzado, Montana State University's new president. MSU is one of 100 land-grant colleges and universities that exist today thanks to the 1862 Congress and Lincoln.

The ink appears a bit faded on the two large pages of parchment, yet

Lincoln's own signature looks steady and firm - showing he clearly believed in what he was doing.

Cruzado told reporters that even though the nation was torn apart by war, an inspired group of leaders "envisioned a brighter future" by establishing public colleges to educate "for the first time the sons and daughters of the working class."

Land-grant colleges, she said, "strengthened democracy for all of us."

As someone who was educated by and got her first teaching job at Puerto Rico's land-grant university and then has taught in or led land-grant universities in New Mexico and Montana, Cruzado said, "I'm profoundly touched."

"This document started it all," she said.

The Morrill Act is named for Vermont Rep. Justin Morrill, the son of a blacksmith, who championed it. The law offered each state that wasn't in rebellion tens of thousands of federal acres to set up colleges. The land could be built on, sold, leased or otherwise used to raise money for the colleges.

The law called for teaching agriculture and mechanical arts - today's engineering - as well as military science and offering a "classical" and "liberal" education to the "industrial classes."

MSU history professor Robert Rydell said this was a "breathtaking" new idea in 1862, when most of America's established universities were private and existed mainly to educate the children of elites.

Congress first passed a land-grant college law in 1859, but President James Buchanan vetoed it as an intrusion on states' rights.

The Morrill Act is one of three "turning point" laws passed by the Republican-controlled Congress after the South seceded and its representatives walked out, Rydell said. The other two were the Homestead Act and the law promoting construction of the intercontinental railroad.

Back then the Republican Party believed in the "bold use of federal power" to grow and industrialize the nation, Rydell said.

Rydell first suggested trying to borrow the document for Cruzado's inauguration. Ever since her first interview for the president's job, he said, she has always talked in public about MSU's mission as a land-grant university to educate working-class people.

He said he just visited Washington, D.C., and saw the bullet that killed Lincoln. Now seeing Lincoln's signature on the law that created MSU, he said, "It's really deeply moving."

Terry Boone, a National Archives exhibits conservator who hand-carried the document to Bozeman, said it is usually kept in a dark vault. It's only allowed out for public display for 12 months every decade.

"It's considered invaluable," Boone said. "It's one of our treasures."

The public can see the document on display in a back corner of the museum's Montana history section. To protect the document, lighting is kept dim, it's enclosed in a special Plexiglas case and the museum has extra security. The Morrill Act will be on display through Oct. 2.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com