Ulysses S. Grant’s Woodstock visit

Overlook Mountain House artist rendering.

Ulysses S. Grant

On July 29, 1873, two carriages, each drawn by a team of four sorrel horses, crossed the bridge over the Sawkill and into Woodstock. As they turned to make their way up the hill towards the center of town, those within the carriages could not have escaped the cheers that were already rising. Despite a light rain, more than one thousand Woodstockers waited outside of Van Etten’s Hotel at the intersection of what is now the corner of Mill Hill and Rock City roads. As the carriages drew to a halt before the front of the hotel, the cheers continued to rise in a united chorus. Slowly, as the crowd pressed forward, a carriage door swung open. To an even greater volume of cheers, out stepped the President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant.

Grant’s arrival in Woodstock was the culmination of a daylong journey that had begun in New York City that morning. Traveling aboard the steamer Chauncey Vibbard, the President, upon reaching Rhinecliff, transferred to the ferry Sandy for the brief trip across the Hudson to Rondout. Greeted at Rondout by Kingston’s General Sharpe and a throng of well wishers, the President’s attempt to reach a waiting carriage was, according to the New York Times, “interrupted by demands made upon his patience in the way of shaking hands with everyone who waited to welcome him.”

Following a luncheon at General Sharpe’s Kingston residence, the President, Sharpe and General Babcock made their way to the Kingston train depot where a special train waited to carry them to the then West Hurley train station.

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Moving out of Kingston as flags waved and guns fired, the train traveled west only to be welcomed in West Hurley by yet another “grand reception.” As the President and his party stepped off the back of the train, they were greeted by the music of a “field band with new uniforms” and a large crowd waving handkerchiefs as a “shower of flowers” descended upon them.

Pausing again to greet those who had welcomed him with handshakes, the President made his way to a waiting carriage. Once seated, the procession began its travel to Woodstock and, eventually, to an overnight stay at the Overlook Mountain House.

As the President disembarked from his carriage in Woodstock, “bouquets of choice flowers and evergreens” showered down upon him from the veranda above. Looking up at the porch, the hero of Appomattox gave a nod of appreciation to the women and children gathered in “holiday dress.” Acknowledging the crowd, Ulysses Grant made his way into the parlor of the hotel where, “in an informal manner, he received all who presented themselves.”

But the President’s stay in the village proper was to be a brief one. Still ahead was the need to reach his final destination by nightfall.

Having been presented with “elegant nosegays” by two Woodstock children whose names are lost to history, the President and his party climbed back into their carriages to continue their journey. Leaving Van Etten’s Hotel at 4:30 in the afternoon, they began the slow trek to the top of the mountain. Along the way, the President could not have missed the site of the Woodstock Cemetery on his right. There, the remains of eighteen young Woodstockers lay at rest, having given of their young lives in the war the President had once led.

Moving upward, the entourage would reach Mead’s Mountain House (where the KTD Monastery is today) at approximately 5:15 p.m. Stopping briefly to rest and water their horses, the party began the final leg of their journey at 5:45 p.m.

Though drizzling rain and low hanging clouds had accompanied the presidential party along the way, newspaper accounts report that, as they neared the hotel, the rain and the fog drew back in retreat to reveal the Overlook Mountain House before them. And, upon first sight of the approaching visitors, the hotel’s gathered guests and employees “sent up a hearty cheer.”

Exiting his carriage once again, the President passed through the front entrance of the hotel beneath a sign of “Welcome” adorned with laurel and evergreens. Greeted by Mr. Lasher, the hotel’s principle operator, the President was escorted to his room on the first floor. There, in what was described by the Kingston Freeman as “sumptuous quarters,” Grant rested following his daylong journey.

Promptly at 7 p.m., however, dinner was announced and the focus of everyone’s attention emerged to take his place of honor in the public dining room at a table decorated, again, with flowers and evergreens. Finishing dinner, the guests for the evening moved to the hotel parlor for dancing. According a report filed by the Freeman, the President did not dance but chose, instead, to engage in conversation with those in attendance. The one bit of conversation that seems to have been recorded by the local paper has Grant inquiring of the ladies that surrounded him, “I want to know how they got this house (referring to the mountain house), all its appurtenances and you ladies up here?” “Why General,” came the response from one woman, “because we knew you would come.”

As the evening began to draw to a close, the Freeman reporter offered the following account as to its conclusion: “Now the servants of the house, who are our own colored men and brothers, and most of whom wore dusty frocks of blue during our late unpleasantness (the Civil War), are on the back veranda serenading His Excellency by singing army songs…if the house can stand the shock of the chorus ‘Glory, Glory Halleluiah,’ which is now ascending, no gales that will ever sweep across this lofty mountain summit can unroof it.” With that, the President, after promising the hotel’s guests that he would join them in an early morning hike, begged his leave and retired to his room.

The following morning, with breakfast behind him, Grant was good to his word and joined his fellow guests for a trek upward to the mountain’s highest point. With two young girls at his side, the President led the procession as those who followed launched into more songs from the war and other patriotic tunes.

Along the way, the entourage first stopped at what had become known as Hopper’s Rock — so named after a guest of the hotel who would, during visits, spend his spare time cutting underbrush in an effort to clear the trail.

Moving on, the President and his followers eventually reached the summit of Overlook. There, taking his rest on a rocky projection that would later be remembered as Grant’s Rock, the President of the United States allowed himself to absorb the truth that only the view from Overlook can offer. A view, according to the New York Times, that took in “every town from Cornwall below Newburgh to a point above Hudson City.” And, as story telling and more singing were offered from the summit, the occupant of the nation’s highest office permitted himself to be “decorated” with wildflowers gathered by the children who had accompanied him.

Returning to the hotel at noon, the President took an early dinner and, at 3:45 p.m., bid farewell to his fellow guests, climbed into his carriage and began to reverse the journey he had undertaken only the day before.

Grant’s visit to Woodstock would be recorded as one of the high points in the history of our town’s first one hundred years. Also recorded, however, as tends to happen in these mountains, were a number of myths and embellishments that attached themselves to his stay.

Myth #1 was that Grant, whose past history with alcohol followed him throughout his years, had been drunk the entire journey. Alf Evers, in his own description of Grant’s visit does note an article written for the Gazette, an anti-Grant newspaper in Rhinebeck, that stated, “The peripatetic head of this great and glorious republic, redolent with the stench of the back pay scandal and cheap whiskey…arrived in Rhinebeck…He was, as usual drunk.” However, neither the Times nor the Freeman, whose reporters followed the President’s visit closely, gave any substance to the rumor.

Myth #2 is that Grant and Robert E. Lee met at Mead’s Mountain House during Grant’s stop there. Lee died on September 28, 1870, three years prior to Grant’s visit.

Myth #3, though more divorced from reality than the other two is, probably, the most entertaining. It is a story told by Jim Twaddell, well known in Woodstock lore for his tall tales. As Twaddell would later recall — to anyone who would listen — he encountered Grant during the morning of his visit in the stable of the mountain house. Grant told Twaddell that he admired his horse Scott very much. Not wishing to be rude to Grant, Twaddell saddled up Scott for the President and off they raced along the trails of Overlook. Within a short period of time, however, Twaddell noticed that, due to the magic of the Overlook Mountain air, Grant was physically turning younger before his very eyes. Also recognizing the effect, Grant began to panic, yelling to Twaddell that if he were to become any younger he would not meet the 35-year-old requirement of the Constitution and would be impeached. Thinking quickly, Twaddell managed to get Scott to reverse course and rapidly guided Grant back to the stable. Upon reaching the mountain house, Grant, it seems, had miraculously returned to the proper age of 51.

There was, perhaps, some irony for Woodstockers when Grant’s death was announced in 1885. For, it was on yet another mountain in New York State, Mt. McGregor, that the former president finally succumbed to cancer just a few days after completing his memoirs. For 19th century Woodstockers, however, Grant’s visit to their mountain was a seminal moment of recognition. His stay may have been brief but here was validation and birth as Woodstock began the transition from industries that took from the land — such as quarrying and tanning — to an economy and lifestyle based on what others saw in the land. Small towns often turn on what may be footnotes in a larger national story. So it was that many would follow Grant and come to know what he may have sensed as he looked out from the top of Overlook. And, for those of us who did follow, perhaps we have also come to realize that there just might be some truth in Jim Twaddell’s tale…there is magic in Overlook’s air.

Richard Heppner is Woodstock Town Historian.

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