Who Died in Grant's Cottage?
By Diane DeBlois
A portion of high land near Saratoga Springs -- the resort where American tourism, as we know it, began -- is called Mount McGregor. It was part of the Kayaderosseras Patent of 1702 and, until 1872, was known as Palmertown Peak. Duncan McGregor saw tourist potential in a promontory so close to the Springs and bought it for back taxes from the State of New York. He built a modest hotel and arranged for guests from Saratoga to arrive by coach. But a more powerful visionary, Joseph W. Drexel of Philadelphia, formed the Mt. McGregor, Lake George and Saratoga Rail Road Company, and bought the hotel and 1,200 acres in 1881. The mention of Lake George was a canard -- there never were plans to extend the line, although tourists could connect with a rail line to Glens Falls and then to Lake George.
Drexel then built, from March 17 to July 17 1882, a narrow (3 foot) gauge railroad from a North Broadway station in Saratoga to the summit so that construction materials and workers could be more easily transported. He planned a much larger hotel -- but the smaller structure occupied the prime spot. So he moved the old Mt. McGregor hotel 200 feet down slope, and erected what he would call the Hotel Balmoral.
Once the hotel was finished, both it and the railroad were formally opened for tourists in the summer of 1882. Tickets were ordered from the Homer Lee Bank Note Company in New York, with an engraving of one of the two Forney type steam locomotives that served the line -- perhaps the George West -- made by H.K. Porter of Pittsburgh. There were six first class coaches and one second class (for the staff), one baggage coach and four flat cars -- all made by Jones and Company of Schenectady. At first, business was brisk and there were seven trains a day in both directions, taking forty minutes to make the 11.5 mile run.
The modest line made railroad history: on November 24, 1883, Leo Daft tried his battery-powered electric engine Ampere on the first mile of the route that offered extreme curves and grades. A third rail was laid down, linked to a powerhouse; the engine was tied with rope to a railway coach. Excessive speed on a curve on the return to the Saratoga station caused the first ever electric locomotive to derail and break apart.
In June 1885, Drexel learned of Ulysses S. Grant's penury and offered him the old Mt. McGregor hotel, now called Drexel Cottage, so that the former President could finish his memoirs in peace.
Grant died on July 23, 1885 -- his book completed, with his family, friends and doctors pleasantly housed with him. His body stayed at Drexel Cottage for over a week to accommodate the people who wished to view it, and to allow for arrangements for a funeral cortege.
Drexel, knowing that history buffs would continue to want to see where Grant died, offered the cottage to the State. But it was not accepted until after Drexel's own death in 1888.
With Drexel's passing, the railroad failed and was sold in October 1888. There were several reorganizations but no trains are known to have used the line until it was reorganized as the Saratoga & Mt. McGregor Railroad in 1897. The hotel still operated without rail connection -- reverting to a stage from Wilton. But then the hotel burned down in December 1897. The Saratoga Northern railroad took over the grade from Saratoga to Wilton and then continuing to Glens Falls, and the winding line up the mountain was abandoned. The Saratoga Northern Railroad was part of the merger to create the Hudson Valley Railroad in 1901.
After the fire of 1897, around 1913, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company bought the mountain land from Drexel's heirs to build a tuberculosis center -- with thirty buildings plus five farms. It was self-sufficient, with even a dentist and pharmacy. The San was phased out in the 1940s, and in 1945 the State bought it for a World War II veterans' rest camp. After charges that vets were using the camp as a pleasure resort in the 1950s, it was closed by the State and it became an annex to the Rome State School for the Retarded. When a new building was constructed for that institution, the site became a correctional facility in1981. Inmates have been trained to fight forest fires in the Adirondacks -- often ones caused by lightning strikes such as the one that attended Grant's death.
So that tourists could still visit what was now called Grant's Cottage, it was separated from the institutional land, and opened by the State. Automobile maps of the 1920s show it as an attraction, on a well-maintained road from Wilton. Visitors are still welcomed Memorial Day to Columbus Day by the Friends of the Ulysses S. Grant Cottage.
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