Today I finally made it to a place I've wanted to see for many years, a place close to where I grew up, and the spot where an underrated American hero made literary history under inconceivably difficult circumstances. My youngest son and I visited the Grant Cottage on Mt. McGregor in the Adirondack foot hills just north of Saratoga, New York.
As we ascended the mountain in my truck, we passed a number of boarded up buildings - large, stone buildings that seemed completely out of place. Just prior to reaching the crest, we came to the Grant Cottage visitor center where you pay a modest $6 per adult for entry. As we exited the building, I saw a walking path that sloped downward and what appeared to be something of a clearing though a wooded area. We decided to check the footpath first, and were rewarded with one of the most magnificent views of the Hudson Valley attainable.
After taking in the magnificent views, it was time to visit the cottage. I had been under the misperception that General Grant and his family occupied the cottage for its solitude and quiet so that the ailing General could extend his limited days in cleaner air and relative comfort. In truth, the cottage was part of a much larger resort called Balmoral. In fact, the General would sit on the front porch with a pad and paper working on his memoirs, and his family had hired a veteran to stand at the foot of the porch to prevent a steady flow of resort-goers from incessantly pestering him. General Grant, however, true to his honorable form, wouldn't permit anyone to be turned away. The resort, after the passing of the General, fell onto hard financial times, and burned in a suspicious fire, after which the owners were well compensated in insurance money.
As we parked the truck, we were struck by the completely out of place prison fencing and guard towers which lined the back end of the Grant Cottage parking area. Such a serene, historic site juxtaposed with a now-closed, but modern and imposing prison facility - a large one at that, now all boarded up and apparently unoccupied.
Finally, time to approach the cottage. The first thing we notice is how beautifully situated it is amid old-growth oak trees on a gentle down-slope. The cottage itself is perfectly preserved, and as we were to find out in the course of the guided tour, it is truly a time capsule as had been intended the moment the General died. Our tour started on the front porch very close to where the iconic photos of the General had been taken, as he sat in his wicker chair composing his memoirs.
The first room we entered had been used as an office by the Grant family as it conducted its affairs during their 6 week stay. The artifacts and room are original, with the exception of the documents laid out on the table, which are facsimiles of the originals. I was surprised to learn that the cottage had actually been lit with electric lights at the time of the General's stay - at least until 10:00PM. After that, the guests would have to sacrifice the luxury of their single filament electric lights as the sounds of the generator were so loud it would prevent the guests from sleeping. Interestingly, the General's beloved wife Julia, continued to visit the cottage after her husband's death, and signed the guestbook in the below photos.
The next room we visited, adjoining the office was one of the two most commonly used by the General during his stay. Due to his increasingly painful condition, he was forced to sleep on two leather chairs pushed together. These chairs are original and were reupholstered some 70 or 80 years ago. On the wall is a chest the General's eldest son had constructed to house items specific to what he knew would be an historic time and place. Within the chest are the General's toothbrush and other toiletry items, his top hat, which he is seen wearing in one of the following images, along with nightshirts and medical items used in the course of his treatments. Most interesting, an original large bottle still containing the medicinal contents used in treating the General's painful throat cancer - cocaine water, which would be sprayed into his mouth.
The next room, the last in the tour, was also the last in the General's life. This was the room in which General Grant died. The artifacts are original and poignant. The elegant clock on the mantlepiece was stopped at 8:06 by his eldest son, the time of the General's last breath, and has never ticked another second of time since. The bed in the corner is the bed the General died in - a fascinating 'cabinet bed', which, when stored, appears more like a large writing desk. The wicker chair on which he spent his waning hours on the porch writing his now famous words, sits at the foot of the death bed with an original funeral wreath on the seat. At the opposite end of the room Is a small table upon which rests a death mask of the General along with a card containing his words - what may have become an unfulfilled dream of his - a lasting national unity which, sadly, would no doubt be a bitter disappointment to all those who fought and sacrificed to bring us all together if they could witness the national discourse today.