WILTON, N.Y. (AP) — Admirers of Union Army Gen. Ulysses S. Grant are building a museum atop Mount McGregor in Saratoga County to better tell the dramatic history of the peak and the nation's 18th president who worked and died there.
After the Civil War, the victorious Grant became a two-term president who enjoyed visiting nearby Saratoga Springs. But by 1885, the war hero faced financial ruin and death from throat cancer. On the advice of doctors, he escaped New York City and arrived at an airy Wilton mountain house on June 16, 1885.
Grant wanted to complete an autobiography to support his family. Despite extreme exhaustion and pain, the "Savior of the Union" finished the memoir in five weeks, just days before he died. His short but important stay enshrined the cabin and put Mount McGregor on the nation's map. In the years following the general's death, Civil War veterans made pilgrimages up the hill to pay their respects to the war effort and their leader.
"This became like the Vietnam War Memorial for Civil War vets, who would visit to try to come to terms with their war experiences," said Melissa Trombley-Prosch, a founding director of the board of the Friends of the Ulysses S. Grant Cottage.
Founded in 1989, the volunteer group operates the cottage, a state historic site that survived a fire at a nearby hotel in 1897, the opening of a neighboring state correctional facility and a move by the state to close it in 1985 after annual attendance dipped to 300.
This year, on the 150th anniversaries of some of Grant's wartime achievements, attendance at the cottage between Memorial and Columbus days spiked past 4,300 — a modern record. That has encouraged board members, who recently raised nearly $10,000 to redesign its stone and wood visitors' center, located near the cottage.
The original structure was built in 1913, and the friends group took possession of it in 2006, converting it to a visitors' center. They hired Lucille Millarson, a creative designer from Saratoga Springs, who is helping to remake the center into the U.S. Grant Museum with improved visual displays, a theater area and a gift shop.
Visitors to the cottage start walking tours in the visitors' center. The new displays will better explain Grant's Civil War exploits, terms as president and "final battle" in which he penned his memoirs on the mount, Friends of Grant Cottage President Tim Welch said.
Under Grant's leadership, the Union Army defeated Confederate forces and kept the nation intact. Grant negotiated and accepted the South's surrender from Gen. Robert E. Lee, and became president four years later.
The Civil War commander visited Saratoga Springs, a popular resort town in the 19th century, the year the Civil War ended in 1865, and twice as president. He arrived in 1869 and stayed in the old Union Hotel, and visited in 1874 for crew races on Saratoga Lake, said Trombley-Prosch, who wrote narratives for five new double-sided panels in the museum.
Grant lost his life's savings— roughly $250,000 — to a Wall Street scheme in the years prior to his illness, said Steve Trimm, an author and Grant Cottage tour guide. Grant's memoirs were published by the American powerhouse author Mark Twain, and remain highly regarded among military scholars. The written works earned his wife some $450,000 — $18 million in today's money — and were the second most-owned book in the nation after The Bible, Trombley-Prosch said.
Mount McGregor was named after lumberman Duncan McGregor, who owned 1,000 of its acres and built Grant's cottage to accommodate high rollers from Saratoga Springs around 1878, Trimm writes in "Saving Grant Cottage," a 63-page book the friends group published this year. A friend of Grant's, a wealthy Gilded Age banker named Joseph Drexel, offered Grant refuge there when he heard about his diagnosis.
Drexel had built the elegant, 300-room Balmoral Hotel near the mountain house in 1884. Instead of tearing the cottage down after Grant's death, Drexel's widow, Lucy Wharton Drexel, and a business associate transferred ownership to a newly formed Mount McGregor Memorial Association, which consisted primarily of Union Army veterans.
More than 15,000 people visited the cottage during its first year, according to Trimm, and it was a strong draw for decades. In 1907, 10,000 aging Union vets met in Saratoga Springs, and most made the trip to the cabin to pay tribute to Grant.
In 1912, the Metropolitan Insurance Company purchased the Balmoral property and built an elaborate sanitarium hospital for the treatment of tuberculosis. The state took over the hospital in the 1960s and turned it into a school and then Mount McGregor jail, which remains oddly juxtaposed with the historic cottage.
Visitors to the cottage next year will continue to pay $5 each to fund the site's maintenance. Next summer figures to be a big year on the mountain because it marks the 150th anniversary of several major battles. The friends group has signed up Grant's great-great-grandson, Ulysses S. Grant Dietz of Newark N.J., to visit the cottage and speak in Canfield Casino to raise money for its future.