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  The Grant Cottage

By John T. Marck


 Sitting very peacefully, on Mount McGregor, in Wilton, New York, in the Adirondack Mountains, is the house known as the Grant Cottage. It is here that Ulysses S. Grant, the ďhero of the Civil War,Ē and the man, who is credited with saving the Union, and our two-term president, spent his final days.  

The city of Saratoga Springs is located a few miles south of Mount McGregor, and it was here that the famous and well-to-do would sample the healing powers of the mineral waters, as well as wager and attend the horse races and generally participate in the high society of the city.  Mount McGregor offered visitors various walking trails and spectacular views of the mountains and the ďSpa City,Ē as well as its cool breezes. 

Mount McGregor got its name from Duncan McGregor, a business and lumberman who purchased a thousand acres that included the summit and eastern section of the mountain.  Using lumber cut from his own sawmill, Duncan built a small hotel on the summit and named it the Mountain House.  It opened to the public in 1878 and soon became a popular destination for people desiring to leave the hot cities and retreat to the cool breezes and beautiful scenery that the mountains, lakes and Hudson Valley provided.  

Because of the popularity of the area, W.J. Arkell, and Joseph W. Drexel of New York, saw Mount McGregor as the perfect area to build an Adirondack resort.  They formed the Saratoga and Mount McGregor Improvement Company, and began work on the Saratoga, Mount McGregor and Lake George Railroad.  This railroad was completed very quickly, taking only three months, and by July 1882 was transporting visitors up the mountain. Later, in 1883, the original Mountain House was moved a few hundred feet south of the summit to be used as a boarding house, while work began on another larger summer hotel that became the Balmoral.  In the summer of 1884, the Balmoral, consisting of 300 guest rooms, opened to great reviews.  Because of its popularity, other attractions were added, such as an elegant restaurant, an art gallery, and the railway which brought visitors directly to the door.  Mount McGregor was now competing directly with Saratoga Springs as a popular vacation spot.

 In the spring of 1885, Joseph Drexel purchased the Mountain House built by Duncan McGregor and planned to renovate it for use by he and his family. While a happy time for Drexel, it was a terrible year for Ulysses S. Grant and his family.  By the summer of 1884, Grant had learned that he did not have long to live, being diagnosed with inoperable throat and tongue cancer.  Combined with this horrible news, a few years earlier, Grant had invested all his money through his son, with the Wall Street Firm, Grant & Ward. This investment turned out to be a Ponzi scheme whereby the partner (Ward) had embezzled over $250,000 of U.S. Grantís money, completely wiping him out. Now broke, Grant knew that the only way to provide for his wife, Julia, and his family, was to write his memoirs.  

Originally, Grant did not desire to write his memoirs because he believed it was wrong to profit from what was such a horrible war, the American Civil War.  Also, the fact that he could be considered a literary man was furthest from his mind. With this though, Grantís Personal Memoirs evolved from articles that he had agreed to write in the publication, The Century as part of a series on the Civil War. He had agreed to write four articles covering the battle of Shiloh, the Vicksburg and Wilderness campaigns, and Appomattox, for each of which he was to be paid $500.  Consequently, for this, he began writing in June 1884, and by July 1, 1884, he had sent a completed draft of ďShilohĒ to The Century.  

 With talk of writing a book, Roswell Smith, president of the Century Company, with Robert U. Johnson, editor of The Century, wanted Grant to sign a contract with them for his memoirs. On October 22, 1884, the day Grant learned that he had cancer; he visited the Century office telling them that he desired to sign a contract with them. A contract was drawn in November 1884, offering Grant a ten percent royalty on expected sales of 25,000 sets (Volumes 1 & 2).

 Grant was considering the offer when his friend, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) heard about the book. He advised Grant the Century offer was not good enough. Twainís company was called Charles L. Webster & Co., under which he published his own works, beginning with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He asked Grant not to sign anything until he considers the offer to be made by Charles L. Webster & Co.  In early December 1884, Webster offered Grant an advance of $50.000: $25.000 for each volume. Finally to seal the deal, in addition to this, Webster offered Grant either twenty percent royalty or seventy percent of all profits. Grant agreed to the advance and the 70%, and signed the contract on February 3, 1885. 

To accomplish the writing of his memoirs, Grant wrote in the exact manner that he had prepared his official reports during the Civil War.  He wrote the narrative, and then his aides would read it over, suggest any revisions, check facts, and then locate any relevant documents.  To assist with his memoirs, Grant engaged the services of Adam Badeau, his former military secretary and his son, Frederick Dent Grant, who was already at work copying and researching.  

After deciding to write, Grant had already written a great deal of his memoirs while living in New York City, when the summerís heat and his advancing cancer made it almost impossible to continue.  By the spring of 1885, his doctors urged him to move from the hot city to a cooler, drier area.  Joseph Drexel, who has just purchased the Mountain House, heard that Grant was in need of a place to stay, and offered him the use of this house, known today as the Grant Cottage.  

On June 16, 1885, Ulysses S. Grant, along with his wife Julia, and their family moved into the cottage. They had arrived by train which took them right up to the cottage at the summit of the mountain.  It would be here that the General and former president would spend his final days on the porch enjoying as best he could the cool breezes  while he continued his memoirs.  

In time, Grantís condition worsened, and the only relief provided him was the bathing of his throat with water containing cocaine, which helped numb the area.  Soon it was very difficult for him to eat or speak, and it must have been a terrible time for him.  Toward the end of his life, it was almost impossible to sleep lying down as this caused him to choke, so he used two overstuffed chairs that faced each other, for sitting, resting, sleeping and writing.   

During Grantís stay at the cottage, in addition to writing his memoirs, he also wrote daily reports to his doctor, describing his condition, and the effects if any of the medication.  On June 17, 1885, Grant wrote the following: 

Dr.  Since coming to this beautiful climate and getting a complete rest for about ten hours, I have watched my pains and compared them with those of the past few weeks.  I can feel plainly that my system is preparing for dissolution in three ways; one by hemhorages, one by strangulation, and the third by exhaustion. The first and second are liable to come at any moment to relieve me of my earthly sufferings; the time for the arrival of the third can be computed with almost mathematical certainty. With the increase of daily food I have fallen off in weight and strength very rapidly for the last two weeks. There can not be a hope of going far beyond this time. All my physician, or any number of them do for me now is to make my burden of pain as light as possible.  I do not want any physician but yourself but I tell you that if you are unwilling to have me go without consultation with other professional men, you can send for them.  I dread them however knowing that it means another desperate effort to save me, and more suffering.  

On June 23, 1885, Grant wrote:  

I said I had been adding to my book and to my coffin, I presume every strain of my mind or body is one more nail in the coffin. 

June 28, 1885: 

I am about as I every day at this hour. Papers are all read. I am drowsy without being able to sleep, and time passes heavily. No worse however only that my mouth has not been washed out to-day and the cocaine does not seem to relieve the pain. 

Then on June 30, 1885, he wrote: 

It is little hard giving up the use of cocaine when it gives so much relief. But I suppose that it may be used two or three times a day, without injury, and possibly with benefit, when the overuse of it has been counteracted.  

Grant continued to write almost daily reports to his doctor. His last two writings are: 

July 20, 1885, 4:00 P.M. 

What do you think of my taking the bath wagon and going down to overlook the south view? 

And the last writing dated simply July 1885: 

I do not sleep though I sometimes dose off a little.  If up I am talked to and in my efforts to answer cause pain. The fact is I think I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun. A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; or to suffer. I signify all three.

 During the short time Grant was at the cottage, about five weeks, many friends made the trip up the mountain to visit the dying General and others would simply go to get a glance of this great man, and whenever possible, pay their respects to him.

 On July 23, 1885, just three days after completing his memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant died.  As military and other preparations were being made for his internment, his family remained at the cottage.  Veterans of the Army of the Republic (GAR) arrived and staying in tents, stayed at the cottage to guard and care for his family.  

Grant probably never thought himself a good writer, but he actually was a very good writer. Thinking of others it seems at all times, when Grant first prepared his memoirs, in his Preface, he wrote:  

In preparing these volumes for the public, I have entered upon the task with the sincere desire to avoid doing injustice to any one, whether National or Confederate side, other than the unavoidable injustice of not making mention often where special mention is due; There must be many errors of omission in this work, because the subject is too large to be treated of in two volumes in such way as to do justice to all the officers and men engaged. There were thousands of instances, during the rebellion, of individual, company, regimental and brigade deeds of heroism which deserve special mention and are not here alluded to. The troops engaged in them will have to look to the detailed reports of their individual commanders for the full history of those deeds.  

On August 4, 1885, a funeral was held at the cottage.  Flowers were placed inside the cottage by his casket.  After this funeral, the train that had brought the General and his family to the cottage now carried the family and Grantís remains on the slow, very sad journey to New York City.  The train stopped at Albany where the General lay instate at the Capital Building. Following this, the train arrived in New York City, where a funeral parade was held on August 8, resulting in the largest such gathering in the cityís history.  Grantís widow, Julia, could not bring herself to be seen in public, and stayed at the cottage until August 31, 1885. 

Grantís memoirs did as Grant hoped, providing nicely for Julia and their family.  At that time his memoirs made over $450,000.00 that today would be about 12 million dollars.  

The owner of the cottage, Joseph Drexel planned to preserve it in honor of the General. To accomplish this, the executors of his estate established the Mount McGregor Memorial Association.  In 1890, the cottage was opened to the public, now known as the Grant Cottage. From 1890 to 1987, the caretakers showed the cottage to its many visitors.  In 1987, the last caretaker left the mountain, and the cottage was in danger of being closed.  

To preserve and protect the cottage, local citizens formed a group called the Friends of Grant Cottage. Although owned by the State of New York, this non-profit volunteer organization has assumed the responsibility of caring, managing and staffing the cottage.  

I recently visited the Grant Cottage in June 2012 for the first time. One of the most appealing things about the cottage that made me want to visit was the fact that the contents of the cottage are basically the same as it was when Grant and his family lived there.  

Upon visiting the cottage, you receive a tour of the first floor that consists of original furnishings used by Grant. Also here are personal items belonging to the General, such as clothing, a toothbrush and his famous hat. There is the water bottle containing the exact water and cocaine mixture that he used. What is fascinating is that the water in the bottle has not evaporated, and is exactly as Grant left it.  The two overstuffed chairs are exactly as Grant used them, as well as his bed, where he died, can be seen.


 Grantís overstuffed chairs

 The bed on which Grant died. 

 Another fascinating feature is the two floral arrangements that were used for his funeral at the cottage, that are preserved where the words can still be read as well as you can see the flowers.  To think that these exhibits are more than 127 years old is amazing.  The clock is there that was stopped by Grantís son at the exact time his father died.   Its notation reads: This clock was stopped by Colonel Fred Grant at the moment of his fatherís death, 8:08 A.M., July 23d, 1885. When you tour the house, visitors have the freedom of movement about the rooms, just as you would if you had been a guest of the Grantís.  



The flowers from his funeral at the cottage, and the clock that was stopped upon his death.

 When you leave the cottage and stand on the porch, I had, and visitors have, the opportunity to sit in the exact chair that Grant used to write his memoirs while sitting on the porch in pretty much the same spot.  Although today the trees hide the view, you can imagine what Grant looked at from the porch. Visitors can walk a short distance from the cottage to see the view that Grant saw, (pictured below) on the other side of the now very tall trees.  This view consists of the Saratoga Battlefield to the east with the Vermont Green Mountains beyond that. The Catskill Mountains are to the south; and the Adirondacks to the north. 

When you arrive to visit the Grant Cottage, it is noted to remind visitors that the cottage is located on the property of the Mount McGregor Correctional Facility. While this presents no problems, visitors must pass through a security check to enter the grounds.  Once through, you arrive at the Visitorís Center. Here is a very nice store with many items, and books of interest. A short film is also shown to give visitors a brief history of the cottage and General Grant. Also located here is a Bath Wagon that was recently acquired that gives visitors a better understanding of Grantís final days.  This small vehicle was made in Bath, England, which is well-known for its healing qualities of its spas, pools and baths, similar to Saratoga Springs.  

This type of cart was used to move invalids or people with health problems from place to place. This exact type cart was used by Grant to wheel him around in and up at the cottage. The company sent him one from England for his use.  

The Grant Cottage is well worth the visit. Having visited many historical areas and sites, it is one of only a few that can boast that it contains the actual furnishings, personal items and clothing of the General. It is a fascinating place to visit, located in a very beautiful, majestic landscape.  


 Copyright © 1992-2022 (2012) by John T. Marck. Information for this article was received from Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Volume 1 & 2, and Selected Letters, Notes to the Doctor written while completing the Memoirs at Mount McGregor, June-July 1885. From Grant, Memoirs and Selected Letters, Volume arrangement, notes, copyright © 1990 by Literacy Classics of the United States, Inc., New York, N.Y. All rights reserved. Other information from the book, Saving Grant Cottage by Steve Trimm, published 2012 by The Friends of Grant Cottage.  I also would like to thank Ms. Diana OíBrien, Grant Cottage Tour Guide for her informational assistance, which was used in the writing of this article.  All photographs used herein are Copyright © 2012, by John T. Marck, except the two photographs of Ulysses S. Grant, Copyright Library of Congress.  Information from this article and its photographs may not be used or reproduced without permission.