If you’ve read the “about me” page of this blog you know I live St. Louis, but I am a product of the west coast. Last week, for the first time in my life, I visited New York City. I have wanted to get there for many years, and there were certain things I especially wanted to see; probably not all of which would be what a more typical New York tourist would want to see. Perhaps not surprisingly, number one on my list was General Grant National Memorial, or in more popular parlance, “Grant’s Tomb.”
At Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site I am often asked where Grant is buried. Sometimes a visitor will playfully ask, “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?” Well, to be precise, no one is buried in Grant’s Tomb. I can now personally attest that the sarcophagi of Ulysses and Julia can be viewed inside the immense mausoleum that was officially dedicated on April 27, 1897.
Visitors to Grant’s Tomb today may not be aware of the rather sordid modern history of the Tomb; how it was neglected, fell into disrepair, was covered in graffitti, became a place where the homelees lived, and where New York gangs fought gun battles. That history is partially documented here, including photos. Also, Joan Waugh’s book, U. S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth includes much on the Tomb’s history. I had the pleasure of a conversation with the NPS rangers at the site who told me stories that make one’s hair stand on end. It wasn’t too long ago that visitation was only around 10,000 annually and NPS rangers were actually afraid to go there. I am happy to report that has all changed now; according to the NPS ranger I spoke to, visitation is about 100,000 a year, and my wife and I felt entirely comfortable (in fact, we were in many parts of the city during our three days and nights and never once felt apprehensive or unsafe).
While much has been done, there is still more that needs to be done, as can be seen in the photos below. In particular, the mosaic sculptures which surround the Tomb are completely out of place. The Tomb is staffed by only three full time NPS employees, one of whom is on loan from Liberty Island while that site is still shut down due to Hurricane Sandy. The shortage of employees means the Tomb is frequently closed because the staff can’t cover both the visitor center and the tomb at the same time. The visitor center is actually a recent addition. It is housed in what used to be the public restrooms under the pavillion overlook. There is a gift shop, and a small interpretive room which has text panels, a few artifacts, and a video. Unfortunately, there was something wrong with the video equipment so I could not view the video. Also unfortunately, there were a few glaring mistakes in the text panels, and a few curious ommisions. For example, there is no mention of Grant and Ward. I would think the story of Grant’s financial debacle would be of prime interest to visitors to New York. I do like the site brochure, which highlights “Milestones of Grant’s Presidency” rather than focusing on Grant’s military achievements.
The Tomb is impressive evidence of the respect and admiration the American people had for the man who saved the Union. Personally though, I couldn’t help but think it is in a rather odd place. As Joan Waugh wrote, after Grant died there was competition over where he would be buried between various towns in Illinois, Ohio, and Washington, D. C. It was the family, primarily Julia, who chose the New York site. The tomb might have fared better over the years had it been placed elsewhere; my vote would probably be D. C., but that’s just my 21st century opinion. If I had been a 19th century New Yorker, perhaps I would have felt as did the New York Times: “A Most Fitting Burial Place: The Nation’s Greatest Hero Should Rest in the Nation’s Greatest City.”