This was General Grant’s more modest first tomb in Riverside Park

When Ulysses S. Grant succumbed to throat cancer on July 23, 1885, the entire country, and New York City in particular, mourned a man considered to be a national hero.

Though he passed away at an upstate resort near Saratoga, the former US President and Civil War General had made Manhattan his home since 1881. He resided in a handsome brownstone with his wife, Julia, at 3 East 66th Street.

In the months before his death, as Grant finished his memoirs and battled a painful cancer, the press had something of a death watch going—writing front page articles about the doctors who came in and out of the brownstone, how well Grant had slept the night before, and what medications he was taking.

Crowds formed outside his brownstone all the way to Central Park, as this Harper’s illustration shows. “Expressions of sympathy were heard on every hand, and every one thought it marvellous [sic] that the General was able to continue the struggle for so long,” reported the New-York Tribune in April 1885.

Those same crowds were likely among the estimated 1.5 million people who lined city streets from City Hall through the Upper West Side to witness Grant’s funeral procession (above, at Bryant Park).

Before his death, Grant decided New York City would be his final resting place. “Mayor William R. Grace (who would later serve as president of the Grant Monument Association) offered to set aside land in one of New York City’s parks for burial, and the Grant family chose Riverside Park after declining the possibility of Central Park,” states grantstomb.org.

Riverside Park was a wise choice. The park, with its natural rock outcroppings and sloping hillside, had recently been developed, and the winding drive alongside it, then called Riverside Avenue, was to be a peaceful carriage road leading to the 18th century inn known as Claremont at 124th Street and beyond.

The problem was, the magnificent Grant’s Tomb we recognize today at Riverside Drive and 122nd Street—with its Doric columns and a circular cupola that can be seen from miles away—was not yet in the planning stages.

So a first tomb for Grant was built in Riverside Park a few blocks north (top two images). Much less grand, the original Grant’s tomb ended up housing his remains for 12 years.

The temporary vault was designed by Jacob Wrey Mould, chief architect of New York City’s Department of Public Works. “With outside dimensions of 17’ x 24’, it consisted primarily of red bricks with black brick trim and a semi-cylindrical asphalt-coated brick roof,” wrote grantstomb.org.

The site chosen for the vault was described in The New York Times on July 29 as “a spot of rare natural beauty away from the noise and turmoil of the great and busy city.”

While Grant’s coffin rested there, the city worked on the design and financing of the spectacular permanent tomb, which opened with great pomp and fanfare on April 27, 1897—a city holiday named Grant Day.

Grant’s remains were quietly transferred inside. Meanwhile, the first tomb was being dismantled, and the bricks became souvenirs.

“In 1897, when Grant’s coffin was transferred to the permanent tomb, the bricks from the dismantled structure became a hot item,” wrote Michael Pollack in a 2006 New York Times FYI column. “As many as 1,000 were acquired by the mayor’s office and distributed to former generals, dignitaries and others.”

And about the old joke about who is buried in Grant’s tomb, the answer is…nobody. Grant’s remains, as well as his wife’s, are entombed (but not buried) in the sarcophagi, viewable from the main entrance.

Riverside Drive is one of New York’s most historic (and beautiful!) streets. Join Ephemeral New York on a walking tour of the Drive from 83rd to 107th Streets on October 24 that takes a look at the mansions and monuments of this legendary thoroughfare.

[Top photo: Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library; second image: NYPL; third image: MCNY, 93.1.1.7829; fourth image: LOC; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: NYPL]

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12 Responses to “This was General Grant’s more modest first tomb in Riverside Park”

  1. Tom B Says:

    We did our own walking tour of this area several years ago and glad we did. It is a peaceful and serene area of NYC. Grant’s Tomb was spectacular, but had odd hours of being open.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I haven’t been inside in years, but I seem to remember it closing very early in the day. It’s spectacular to see on the hill though—uplifting and glorious.

  2. Guido Alvarez Says:

    I recall visiting there during the 1970’s and being shocked to see the area being used by local drug addicts as a ‘shooting gallery’. The tomb was in a state of disrepair.

  3. Shayne Davidson Says:

    Judging by the crowds at the funeral procession, I imagine the pickpockets were having a field day!

  4. VirginiaLB Says:

    I visited the cottage where Grant died about 20 years ago. It was then on the grounds of a state prison. As we entered the grounds, the guard said, ‘Don’t pick up any hitchhikers.’ Last thing on my mind. The cottage was lent to Grant by a friend. His doctors thought the country air might help. He was in agonizing pain but refused painkillers as he didn’t want them to cloud his mind. He was writing his memoirs, which have never been out of print since, in the hope of raising money for his family when he died. They were penniless. A brilliant general, he was a terrible businessman. The dried floral wreaths sent by mourners were still there as well as the medicines he refused to take. Alas, his beloved cigars killed him. It’s a very moving place to visit, highly recommended.

  5. Giovanni Punto Says:

    While not directly concerning Grant’s Tomb, Ulysses Grant’s youngest son, Jesse Root Grant, also had an interesting Manhattan connection, though far uptown in Iwood-on-Hudson. His residence on Inwood Hill, prior to its conversion to a city park, is the subject of an article in Cole Thompson’s myinwood.net. https://myinwood.net/the-generals-son-an-inwood-love-affair/

  6. Beth Says:

    Glad to see a mention of Jacob Wrey Mould, an generally unappreciated genius. If you enjoy the intricate carvings at Bethesda Terrace, give a little tip of the hat to Mr. Mould!

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Yes, he’s responsible for so much of the loveliness of Bethesda Terrace. The bird carvings always get me.

  7. jms Says:

    I had read (e.g., here) that “From its opening until the 1920s, Grant’s Tomb was the most visited monument in New York City, outdrawing even the Statue of Liberty. Most years it drew half a million visitors or more.” Presumably that includes the dozen years at the original tomb, something I hadn’t realized.

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