hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News April 2021


A mountain retreat for a president’s last days

Maury Thompson



On the scale of the world’s grand peaks, Mount McGregor is more of a molehill than a mountain.
“It’s rank of honor is rather that of a king among the hills than that of a noble among mountains,” The Evening Post of New York City suggested on June 15, 1885.

The mountain in Saratoga County gained its stature not from its height, but from its historical significance as the place where Ulysses S. Grant, the former president and Civil War general, died from throat cancer on July 23, 1885.

Earlier this year, the National Park Service designated Grant Cottage, where the president spent his final weeks and completed his memoir, a National Historic Landmark. The state-owned property normally is open to visitors from May through October.

Nineteenth century optimists held out hope that Grant’s mountaintop sojourn at what was then called Drexel Cottage, near the Balmoral Hotel, would be a respite rather than hospice stay.
“General Grant … is now at Mount McGregor seeking the greatest blessing that can come to old or young ­­— health,” The Lansingburgh Courier of Rensselaer County wrote in an editorial on June 20, 1885, four days after Grant arrived at the mountain. “That extended life and comfort may be his position is the wish of millions, at home and abroad.”

Grant seemed stronger after his first night sleeping at the cottage.
“At six o’clock, the loud caroling of robins from the trees whose branches almost swept the cottage awakened Gen. Grant,” The Morning Star of Glens Falls reported on June 19. “There was a brighter look on his face than his attendant had seen for many days as he listened to songs of the birds. The slanting rays of the sun danced cheerily in upon the soft gray carpet with its quaint-looking patches. The morning was clear and almost cold.”

Harrison, one of Grant’s servants, was encouraged, the paper reported.
“He said to his fellow servants, ‘The general is going to be better off after all.’”
At one point, the Rev. John Philip Newman, Grant’s personal chaplain, attempted to bolster the general’s confidence, telling him that “great men did not die on top of mountains. Moses received the laws on a mountain, Elisha [Elijah] was protected from his enemies while resting on a mountain, and Christ was transfigured on the top of a mountain.”

Nevertheless, Newman would preach at Grant’s funeral, which was held Aug. 4 at Mount McGregor.

Well before Grant’s arrival in Saratoga County, Mount McGregor was known for its therapeutic qualities.

Hay fever sufferers frequently visited over the years and found relief, inspiring the adage, “Who climbs up here leaves his sneezes behind.”

“Nature contributes the forest, an unstinted supply of pure air, with sunshine on top at a convenient distance,” The Evening Post reported.

Grant’s doctors, and Grant himself, concluded the healthful environment extended his life.
“The atmosphere enables me to live in comparative comfort while I am being treated, or while nature is taking its course with my disease,” Grant wrote in a note that he shared with his physician, The Morning Star reported on July 3. “I should not have been able to come here now if I had remained in the city. It is doubtful, indeed, whether I would have been alive.”
Grant recognized the mountain’s potential as a cure center.

When Judge Henry Holton and his son, James, called on Grant on June 20, Grant wrote on his message pad, “I find the air very fine here. This must become a great sanitarium before many years.”

Grant’s wish did come to pass.
Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. built a sanitarium on the mountain, treating 3,507 of its employees for tuberculosis between Nov. 24, 1913 and Sept. 1, 1945, The Post-Star reported in 1945. After that, the property was used as a rest camp for World War II veterans.

The state of New York took possession of the property, which extends into the neighboring town of Moreau, in 1960. The state initially used the former sanitarium as a home for the developmentally disabled before converting it into a prison in the 1970s. The prison complex has been unused since it closed in 2014, though Grant Cottage has remained open seasonally for visitors.

The view from the mountain’s lookout is dramatic, as Mark Twain commented when he came to Mount McGregor to pick up manuscripts of the memoir Grant was writing, which Twain assisted in getting published.

“I came near going away without knowing about the view from that lookout,” Twain told an Albany Argus reporter, according to a July 3, 1885 report in The Morning Star. “I should not have missed it for anything: for, in connection with its historic associations, I consider that it presents the grandest scenery that I know of in America.”

Grant had opportunity to soak up the view, riding in a makeshift wheelchair.
“It is a small buggy, supported by springs that rest upon a set of wheels arranged like those of a tricycle, two large ones under the body and a small one in front,” The Morning Star reported.
Harrison, Grant’s servant, pushed Grant up the slope toward the hotel and bluff.

“It was hard tugging, and the general was amused,” the paper reported. “At length, the brow of the mountain was reached, and the vehicle stopped for the general to enjoy the scene.”
After visiting the lookout, Harrison whirled Grant around the hotel piazza, where the general “repeatedly lifted his hat in response to similar salutations” from the hotel’s guests and staff.
It was a whimsical moment as the general neared death.

By the evening of July 22, Grant’s son, Fred, feared that his father would not survive the night. The former president did make it through the night, but not much longer.

Grant’s three physicians were conferring on the cottage veranda a little before 8 a.m. July 23 when Harry, Grant’s nurse, interrupted the meeting.

“He told them he thought the general was very near to death,” The Morning Star reported.
Dr. Douglas and his colleagues examined Grant, and Douglas sent word to the family to come quickly.
Grant died at 8:08 a.m.


Maury Thompson was a reporter for The Post-Star of Glens Falls for 21 years before retiring in 2017. He now is a freelance writer focusing on the history of politics, labor and media in the region.