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Photo from the interior. Photo: www.grantcottage.org

Photo from the interior. Photo: www.grantcottage.org

Grant Cottage, Mount McGregor

By Patricia & Robert Foulke

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

In an era where former Presidents of the United States can raise funds for massive presidential libraries to document their tenure and make millions in speaking engagements, it’s hard to remember that 19th century presidents were not so lucky.

A number of them were impoverished in retirement, with no healthy pensions to sustain them, and some, like the hero of the Civil War, lost their savings through shaky investments.  When this man became terminally ill, he was unprepared to support his widow and family.

Ulysses S. Grant fought his last battle to recoup his losses on the top of Mount McGregor.  It didn’t involve swords and bullets because the enemy was throat cancer. The family had taken a cottage there because his doctors thought the mountain air would be beneficial. He agreed, noting on his pad, “I am exceedingly pleased with this delightful mountain air.”  Later he wrote, “The atmosphere here enables me to live in comparative comfort while I am being treated or while nature is taking its course with my disease.”

One of his two last wishes was to die as a general instead of as a former president.  He wasn’t happy with some of the events of his administration and preferred that people remember him as a victorious general.  President Chester Arthur granted his wish and restored his status as General in 1885.

Grant’s other wish was to finish his memoirs–a necessity to provide cash for the family after a business partner had absconded with all of his money.  Doctors told him that he did not have long to live, so a tenacious Grant plugged on writing and did finish just days before his death.

Incredibly, he worked on the porch dressed in his black silk top hat, a formal black coat with white silk ascot around the neck, and gray bedroom slippers–almost as if he were sitting for a formal portrait.  Day after day he wrote with the same determination that he had brought to his successful campaigns during the Civil War.

The effort provided a final victory after death.  His memoirs brought wealth to his widow and to Mark Twain, who bought the finished manuscript for $450,000.  Readers can envision the battles through the eyes of a man with a mastery of detail and a talent for writing, even with morphine and cocaine in his body to quell the pain.

Today the cottage, designated a State Historic Site, is owned by New York State and operated with the help of a volunteer organization, the Friends of the Ulysses S. Grant Cottage.  Researchers peeled through the various colors used on the cottage over the years to restore the original colors (gold and red) on clapboard and shutters.  You can visit the cottage and find everything intact, just as he left it in 1885.

Exterior of Grant Cottage

Duncan MacGregor originally built the cottage in the middle of the 19th century, and it later became part of the Metropolitan Insurance Company Sanitarium for tuberculosis sufferers.  In the late 18th century it was thought that cold, dry air could alleviate and even cure this dreaded disease, which had become the scourge of industrialized cities.  A railroad ran from Saratoga Springs to the summit of the mountain in Wilton, serving both the Sanitarium and the Hotel Balmoral, which burned in 1897.  The Grant family arrived on the railway in June of 1885, and the General’s body was taken away by train less than two months later on August 4.

Unlike many historic sites, the cottage is not a replica but original. Inside, the first room displays a collection of photographs, including the overlook where Grant was taken in his bath wagon for a final view of the countryside on July 20, 1885.  Another photo shows the family, including his son Ulysses S. Grant III, who was present when lightning struck and knocked a guard unconscious.  The two volumes of the memoirs that represent Grant’s final struggle rest in a case.

The next room contains two chairs that were taken from Grant’s town house.  He slept sitting up in the larger chair with his feet on the small smaller.  The electric light was original to the cottage, and it normally stayed on until 10:00 p.m. every night.  The cabinet contains his top hat, pillow, nightshirts, dressing gown, and on top stands a bottle of cocaine and Saratoga water for his throat.

Grant’s throat condition forced him to write messages to his family and doctor, and some of the more poignant notes are framed.  He teased the doctor, suggesting that he should save the notes for his own memoirs.  A fan on the table is one of the few mementos saved from Grant’s tour around the world, when he received gifts from the Emperor of Japan and many others; more are preserved in the Smithsonian.

You can walk into the parlor where Grant died on July 23, 1885. The wicker chair in the corner was his favorite, and it was carried out to the porch when he wanted to be there.  The bed is the sort that folds into a “mock” desk.  A fireplace was installed in a hurry by the Drexel family when they knew Grant would be coming to stay.

During his last day, even though very weak and sometimes unconscious, Grant noticed that the clock on the mantel struck twelve even though it was only eleven.  He wrote on his pad, “Fred, hadn’t you better take that clock down and wind it up and start it as it should go?”  He died at eight minutes past eight and Fred stopped the clock.

The embalmers worked on the dining room table and placed his body in an iced coffin until the funeral on August 4. For that august occasion, the Grand Army of the Republic came up the mountain to keep order.  A floral tribute representing the “Gates of Heaven,” given by Mr. and Mrs. Leland Stanford,” is still there as well as one given by the Meade Post of the Grand Army of the Republic in Philadelphia.  Everlasting flowers were partially dried, dipped in wax and left for 24 hours.  They have endured more than a century so far.

In you go:

Grant Cottage information: 518-587-8277.  Hours: 10 a.m. to  4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through Columbus Day.  Directions: From Exit 16 of the Northway head west to Route 9. Go through the intersection, take the first right and follow Grant Cottage signs to the gate of the Mount McGregor Correctional Facility. Visitors must stop briefly to check in. The driver must have a license. Firearms, alcohol, and dogs are not allowed on the mountain.


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