By Daniel T. Weaver
One of the more poignant stories in American history concerns the final weeks of Ulysses S. Grant’s life at Mt. McGregor in the summer of 1885. Knowing he was dying, he continued to work on his memoirs, which were the only asset the bankrupt former general and president had to leave his wife Julia.
While Mt. McGregor is located in Saratoga County, it was mostly Montgomery County men, who made it possible for Grant to spend the end of his life in this beautiful and relatively peaceful setting.
W. J. Arkell, of Canajoharie, publisher of various journals including Leslie’s Weekly, thought Mt. McGregor the most beautiful spot in the country, and believed that Duncan McGregor’s small resort needed further development. On a visit to Mt. McGregor in 1881 with his father James, inventor of the paper bag, brother Bartlett, founder of Beechnut, and John Kellogg, of Amsterdam’s Kelloggs and Miller Linseed Oil Company, Kellogg suggested that W. J. Arkell build a railroad from Saratoga to the mountain.
According to Thomas M. Pitkin’s book, The Captain Departs Ulysses S. Grant’s Last Campaign, Arkell asked Kellogg, “How much will you contribute?” Kellogg agreed to provide $25,000 as did James and Bartlett Arkell. Other men were brought into the plan and the Saratoga, Mt. McGregor and Lake George Railroad was chartered and running by July of 1882. Kellogg, already president of the Amsterdam, Chuctanunda and Northern RR became president of the Mt. McGregor Railroad, W. J. Arkell was the Vice-President and other Montgomery County men were on the Board of Directors. Joseph W. Drexel, partner of J. P. Morgan, was one of the few investors not from the county who played a major role in Grant’s final days.
These men did more than run a railroad. They purchased 1040 acres of land on Mt. McGregor, including Duncan McGregor’s hotel, and W. J. Arkell set off to make Mt. McGregor a first class resort. McGregor’s hotel was moved a short distance and a much larger, more luxurious hotel, the Balmoral, was built in its place. A limited number of lots were made available for wealthy people to build cottages.
W. J. Arkell built the first cottage. In 1885 Joseph Drexel bought McGregor’s hotel to renovate for his own use. The truth is it was purchased for Grant at Arkell’s urging. In 1927 Arkell published a book, Old Friends and Some Acquaintances, in which he honestly describes his motives, “I thought if we could get him to come to Mount McGregor, and if he should die there, it might make the place a national shrine—and incidentally a success.” Drexel’s influence as a friend of Grant brought him to Mt. McGregor, and in spite of Arkell’s motivations, Mt. McGregor was a good choice, and Grant’s doctors approved it.
W. J. Arkell made the arrangements for Grant and his family to come to Mt. McGregor. The last ride of Grant’s life was on the eleven mile narrow gauge Mt. McGregor Railroad on June 16, 1885. Drexel, Arkell, and Kellogg were among those who accompanied him.
During the last six weeks of Grant’s life, he had spells where he felt better. Nevertheless, there was an overall decline. He continued to work on his memoirs. On June 23, 1885, Grant 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.” Yet, he chafed when his physicians ordered rest. Mark Twain, Grant’s friend, publisher and one of the more notable visitors to the cottage stated after Grant’s death that writing his memoirs extended Grant’s life but once finished, the inactivity hastened his end.
After Grant died on July 23, 1885, Arkell assisted Grant’s son in making funeral arrangements. It was Drexel’s desire to leave his cottage as it was when Grant died. As one of Drexel’s executors, Arkell saw his will carried out. Arkell and Kellogg also were two of the founders of the Mount McGregor Memorial Association, which was in charge of the cottage from 1889-1957.
Arkell’s dream of Grant’s cottage becoming a shrine came true, but his desire to see Mount McGregor become a successful resort failed. By 1887 the Railroad was in receivership, and eventually the resort was sold. The Hotel Balmoral burned in 1897.
The men who invested in Mt. McGregor lost money, nevertheless, they made Grant’s final days easier and enabled him to finish his memoirs, which are a literary and historical masterpiece.
This story is one of 60 stories in my book, Between the Cracks: Forgotten Stories of Amsterdam NY and the Mohawk Valley which you can order through amazon.