History is being made—or really, remade in Saratoga County. saratoga living has learned that the History Channel will feature Grant Cottage State Historic Site in Wilton in a new, three-part documentary miniseries about the life of Civil War General and US President Ulysses S. Grant. Nestled on the slopes of Mount McGregor, just 20 minutes north of Saratoga, Grant Cottage is where the nation’s 18th president spent the last weeks of his life and finished his personal memoirs (it’s also where Grant’s funeral was held).
Slated to air this fall on the History Channel, the miniseries, which has a working title of Grant, will consist of three, two-hour episodes based on the 2017 biography of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Chernow. “The story of Grant coming up to the cottage will definitely be featured in the documentary,” says Ben Kemp, Operations Manager at Grant Cottage, who’s been working with the documentary’s production crew.
Shortly after it was released, the rights to Chernow’s biography about Grant were purchased by Appian Way, the production company of megastar and Oscar winner Leonardo DiCaprio in cooperation with Steven Spielberg’s Lionsgate. Last May, it was announced that Appian Way and Lionsgate would also do a companion docu-series in association with the New York-based production studio RadicalMedia, whose previous documentary projects include Concert for George (a tribute to late Beatle George Harrison) and Ron Howard’s Made in America about the music festival of the same name created by Grammy-winning hip-hop artist Jay-Z.
At the time that the film rights were bought, rumors swirled that Spielberg was in talks to direct with DiCaprio playing Grant. However, since last spring, there’s been no official deal, and production on the film is currently on hold. Kemp notes that even when the biopic does start production, it’s unlikely to do much filming at the actual Grant Cottage. “The State Park system’s not too keen on letting film crews on the site, as far as protecting the artifacts,” says Kemp. “It’s possible they could do some exterior scenes, maybe some scenes on the porch, because it does look great from the outside.”
While the Grant biopic is waiting in the wings, the docu-series is moving swiftly ahead. Grant Cottage has already provided production crews with a bevy of photographic and video materials from the site’s collection. In addition to this, Kemp went to RadicalMedia’s headquarters in New York City last November to do an interview for the documentary. “That was about a three-hour interview,” he says. “So I’d imagine there’ll be a few clips of that as well in the documentary.” As for whether the big motion picture about Grant will also highlight Grant Cottage, Kemp says: “It’s such a dramatic closing chapter to Grant’s life [that] I’d be shocked if it didn’t make it into the feature film.”
It’s amazing that it’s taken this long for Hollywood to adapt the story of Grant’s time at Mount McGregor. Dying of throat cancer and broke from a number of financially disastrous decisions, the former president and general arrived at the peaceful Adirondack cottage that would later bear his name on June 16, 1885. Not wanting to leave his family destitute, Grant had made the journey up to Mount McGregor, which at the time was part of a luxury mountain resort, hoping the fresh mountain air would improve his health long enough to complete his memoir and collect on the book deal. That was to the tune of 70 percent of the book’s net profits, a deal offered to him by his good friend, the great humorist and author Mark Twain. Incredibly, Grant finished the final proofreading just days before he passed away on July 23. The memoirs went on to become a national bestseller, thus ensuring the Grant family’s financial security.
This won’t be Grant Cottage’s first cameo on national television. The historical site was featured on CSPAN’s popular Cities Tour of the Saratoga area in 2017, as well as on the Travel Channel’s Mysteries at the Museum series, which also aired that year and focused on a peculiar artifact on display at the cottage (one of Grant’s treatments for his throat cancer was a large jar of cocaine-steeped water).
Interest in Grant Cottage has grown considerably in recent years, especially since the closure of Mount McGregor Correctional Facility in 2014, which lies just across from Grant Cottage and, like the two-story, historic cottage, was first developed as a getaway destination (the Hotel Balmoral) by Duncan McGregor in the late-19th century. “We’re excited to have exposure like the films and new biographies,” says Kemp. “They all help us put the site on the map.” (He’s currently working to have Grant Cottage designated a National Historic Landmark.) The site has grown so popular that it even gained the attention of US Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who visited the site on June 17 to push for the national designation. “It’s great because Grant Cottage is the final chapter to a fascinating life,” says Kemp. “And the last chapter is the thing that people usually remember.”