The tour starts off shakily, with seemingly negligible interest within the group, but I finally get their attention. I tell them about Ulysses S. Grant’s last trip to the overlook and the weakened state it left him in – he did have cancer. I pause before I continue. This is my favorite part of the tour.
“After returning from the overlook, Grant was drained of the last of his strength,” I explain, “and for the first time in months, he requested to lie down. At his request, this bed was brought down from the hotel for his use.” I motion to the bed in the corner. It’s the one Grant used in 1885; even the sheets are the same. It’s another example of time standing still.
I continue my tour, explaining that on the morning of July 23, 1885, the president’s family was notified by his doctors that he was beginning to fade. His family gathered around him to pay their final respects.
Grant’s wife, Julia, was in the wicker chair on the left side of the bed, their oldest son Fred stood at the head of the bed, keeping his father’s head propped up so he could breathe, and Grant’s only daughter, Nellie, sat on the edge of the bed, holding her father’s hand. At 8:08 a.m. Ulysses S. Grant, hero of the Civil War and eighteenth president of the United States, died of throat cancer.
I let these visitors embrace the quiet of the room as they look around. Nothing has changed – not the carpets, wallpaper, furniture, nothing. Even after four years, this part always gets me. How could it not? After thirty seconds I continue, but whisper so as not to break the spell.
“Soon after his father passed away,” I begin again, “Fred Grant walked to the clock you see on that mantelpiece and stopped it. The minute hand at eight minutes past the hour, the exact time of Grant’s death. It has not marked a single second since.”
As the group looks at the clock, I pick up a piece of paper from a side table. It is a copy of a note that was discovered in Grant’s bathrobe. He wrote it for his wife just two weeks before his death. I ask a member of the group to read it aloud.
The note is short but lovingly sincere. It’s a farewell to Julia, in which he asks her to take care of their dear children but admits that they have little reason to worry. He ends the note simply: “I bid you a final farewell until we meet in another, and I trust better, world. You will find this on my person after my demise.” I always end my tour with the note. I feel I’m letting Grant finish the story in his own words.
As the visitors shuffle out, I search their faces for something. I’m not exactly sure exactly what, but I think it’s some trace of the same passion I have for history and this small cottage. History is truly alive here. I stand in the room that Grant died in more than a hundred years ago, where the clock has stopped time. I look around and realize that Fred Grant could have just closed the door.
The best part? I get to do it all over again in twenty minutes. It’ll be a new group, and there will be new challenges, but it’s worth it. Standing in this musty room telling these stories is where I am happy. History is nothing but the largest collection of stories, and these stories can teach us so much. They deserve to be told, and I want to tell them for the rest of my life.