Category Archives: State History

When Wartime Baseball became A Powerhouse at Fort Niagara

As the nation mobilized for World War II, the gathering winds of global conflict also assembled a temporary baseball powerhouse at a U.S. Army base on the shores of Lake Ontario.

The military post at the Old Fort Niagara State Historic Site long had sports teams, which before the war played other Army teams and as part of the now-defunct Courier-Express Suburban League. This league included town squads like Martinsville, Como Park and the Welland “Nationals,” as well as corporate teams from such regional businesses as Bell Aircraft Corp., Carborundum, Curtiss Aeroplane Co., Harrison Radiator, Union Carbide and Myers Lumber Co.

The baseball team practices near their barracks at Fort Niagara in 1942. (Photo Credit – Old Fort Niagara Association)

But starting in 1941, as the U.S. military began ramping up its manpower, events fell into place at Fort Niagara for assembly of a formidable baseball team made from professional and semi-professional players, even including a former pitcher for the championship New York Yankees.

What happened at Fort Niagara was part of a story that happened across America, which instituted the military draft in September 1941 and by the end of that year already had two million men in uniform. And that, of course, included many baseball players.

According to the website baseballinwartime.com, more than 4,500 professional players swapped flannels for military uniforms, including future Hall of Famers like Bob Feller, Hank Greenberg, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. What is far less commonly known is that at least 150 minor league players lost their lives while serving their country.

Before these soldier-athletes at Fort Niagara started getting shipped to other posts and overseas, they won two consecutive league and regional Army championships, and even faced off twice in dramatic duels against the legendary African American pitcher Satchel Paige and his Kansas City Monarchs during an era when professional baseball was still segregated.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of a high point in the team’s record.  In 1941, behind coach and pitcher, Technical/First Sergeant James Moody of Union City, Pennsylvania, the team had more than eight members with a batting average over .300, and finished the season with 43 wins to only five losses.  They were crowned Courier-Express Suburban League Champions and U.S. Army Second Corps Area Champions.  Then, at Dexter Field in Queens on October 11, 1941, the Fort Niagara team swept a best-of-three series against U.S. Army First Corps Area Champions, Fort Adams of Newport, Rhode Island, to become the Army’s “Inter Corps Area Champions” for 1941.

The 1941 champion baseball team at Fort Niagara, shown at Dexter Field, Queens( Kneeling, L to R): William Ahern, Hamburg, NY; Herman Broska, Lancaster, NY; Adam Czaya, Lancaster, NY; Orval Cott, Buffalo, NY; Alfred Cervi, Buffalo, NY; Peter Dashuski, Auburn, NY; Cecil Herner, Fulton, NY. (Standing, L to R): Lt. J. G. Rizzo, New York City; John Kuryla, Elmira Heights, NY; Carmine Liguori, Bronx, NY; Augie Macali, Ithaca, NY; Sgt. Jim Moody, Coach, Union City, PA; Robert Nugent, Syracuse, NY; Joseph Petrella, Groton, NY; George Vittle, Kenmore, NY; and Capt. Norman St Clair, Ebenezer, NY. Although none of these 1940-1941 uniforms are known to exist currently, they are believed to be grey wool flannel with red pinstripes; navy and white trim on the sleeve ends, around the collar and edging the front button plackets; FORT NIAGARA lettered in white and edged with navy; and with red caps and stockings. (Photo credit- Old Fort Niagara Association)

In early 1942, the championship team added former New York Yankees pitcher (and new U.S. Army recruit) Stephen George “Steve” Peek, who had been a star athlete at Saint Lawrence University and in the minor leagues before signing with the Yankees, who won the World Series in 1941. Although Fort Niagara was still a “powerhouse” team, the squad now participated in the PONY League (Pennsylvania-Ontario-NY), which included New York teams in Lockport, Batavia, Hornell, Olean, Jamestown and Wellsville, as well as in Bradford, Pennsylvania and Hamilton, Ontario.

Steve Peek, a right handed pitcher, played for the New York Yankees in 1941 before coming to Fort Niagara after his induction into the U.S. Army. (Photo Credit – Detroit Public Library)

Newspaper accounts of the time heralded Peek’s entry into the military, as recounted in this March 22, 1942 report in the Pittsburgh Press:

FALL IN! SERVICE MEN AND SPORTS Coaches and athletes alike are entering the Armed Forces daily, willing to let Uncle Sam run their team for the duration … Yankee pitcher, Steve Peek is one player who isn’t holding out.  He’ll do his hurling this summer for the Fort Niagara (N.Y.) baseball team — at $21 per month.

Regional newspapers in New York and Pennsylvania also took notice of the powerhouse team at Fort Niagara. As reported on June 11, 1942 in the Olean Times-Herald:

FORT NIAGARA NINE TO PLAY PITLERMAN HERE Second in a series of games for the war effort will be held at Bradner Stadium Monday night when the Oilers tangle with Fort Niagara.  Like at the Victory Game this week, the Olean baseball club will donate its services free and will furnish the baseballs and umpires for the game.  Proceeds from this game will be equally divided between the soldiers and the emergency war fund of the Community Chest.  The soldiers’ half goes into the recreation fund at Fort Niagara and is a direct contribution to boys in the service.  Regular admission prices will prevail.

The soldiers have a formidable team composed of former professional players headed by Steve Peek, pitcher for the New York Yankees.  Dick Stedler, former Batavia pitcher and son of Bob Stedler, PONY League president, and George Zittel, who played first base for Olean in 1940, are among the former PONY Leaguers with the Fort team.  Pvt. John Zulberti, second base; Corp. Joe Petrella, shortstop; Sgt. Bob Nugent, outfielder and Corp. Orval Cott, third base, are all former Canadian-American League players.  Pvt. Al Cervi, outfielder, and one of the most outstanding pro basketball players in the nation, formerly played with Albany of the Eastern league.  First Sgt. Jim Moody, manager-pitcher of the soldiers, Pvt. First Class Herman Broska, another pitcher, and Pvt. Bill Aherns, outfielder, have cavorted around the diamonds of the Southern League clubs.  Broska also played with Driscoll’s Nationals.  Fort Niagara players who are products of semi-pro leagues are: Pvt. Cecil “Dolly” Herner, right field, Pvt. Carmen Liguori, pitcher, Corp. Robert August “Augie” Macali and Sgt. John Kuryla, catchers.


Another account in the June 29 edition of the Bradford Evening Star/Bradford Daily Record on an upcoming game between the hometown Bradford Bees and the Fort Niagara squad (with Peek scheduled as starting pitcher) noted the solider-athletes were “sweeping though PONY League opponents in an unstoppable cyclonic manner.”

The games were a popular part of the war effort. Fifty percent of ticket receipts from PONY League games went to the Red Cross, the Army Relief Fund and other war relief organizations.  The Fort Niagara team also played charity and exhibition games in Syracuse, Ithaca, Utica (teams in the Canadian-American Pro League) and against teams in the Negro American League, including Paige’s Kansas City Monarchs.

The Fort Niagara team was celebrated locally. One such event happened in July 1942 at the Emery Hotel in Bradford, Pennsylvania, where the squad were guests of honor to benefit the USO.

A report in the Bradford Evening Star and Daily Record described the hotel ballroom decorated in red, white and blue bunting, where “twenty local girls acted as hostesses. Approximately 100 couples attended the dance. The following soldier athletes were guests: Sgt. John Kuryla; Pvt. Steve Peek; Pvt. Richard Steelier; Cpl. Herman Broska; Sgt. James Moody; Cpl. George Little; Pvt. Carl Dossire; Corp. Joe Petrella; Pvt. John Zulberti; Pvt. Adam Czaya; Sgt. Robert Nugent; Pvt. Orval Cott; Pvt. Bill Ahern; Pvt. Al Cervi; Pvt. R. Blattner; Pvt. Joe Leone; Pvt. Harry Ingles; Pvt. Lloyd Adsit; Pvt. Cecil Herner; Pvt. Carmen Liguori and Pvt. Augie Macali. Hostesses were the Misses June Johnston; Norma Bashline; Kay Dunn; Mary Lehman; Joanne Ryan; Betty Vickery; Dorothy Jane Nash; Frances Coulter; Ruth Kreinson; Margaret Jean Eysinger; Betty Ball; Betty Ann English; Jean Thuerk; Lillian Wozer; Betty Echelberger; Mary Lou Trace; Peggy Lindsey; Mary McArthur; Ann Loveless; Mary Lynn Carrier; June Hemple and June Barto.”

One of Fort Niagara’s most anticipated games came Sept. 15, 1942, when they faced off against Paige and the Monarchs for the second time that season, having lost the earlier match. According to press accounts, thousands of fans at the former Offerman Stadium in the city of Buffalo saw the military team prevail by a 3-1 score.

Satchel Paige and his Kansas City Monarchs had prevailed by a 2-1 score in the earlier matchup in August. (Photo credit – Jamestown Post Journal, August 28, 1942)

A promotional poster of the return matchup at Offermann Stadium between the Fort Niagara team and the Kansas City Monarchs featuring their ace pitcher, Satchel Paige. (Photo credit – Heritage Auctions)

The former Offermann Stadium in Buffalo. The facility was closed in 1960 and demolished the following year. (Photo Credit- Buffalo News)

The Dunkirk Evening Observer ran this UPI account of the contest the next morning:

FORT NIAGARA TEAM TAKES KANSAS CITY The crack Fort Niagara service nine, paced by the four-hit hurling performance of ex-New York Yankee, Steve Peek, last night defeated the Negro American League champion Kansas City Monarchs 3-1 before 5,000 fans in Offermann Stadium.  Willard Brown, Monarch centerfielder, robbed Peek of a shutout by putting a homerun over the right field wall in the seventh inning.  Satchel Paige struck out six opponents as he pitched the first three frames for the Negro champs, but Johnson, who relieved, was nicked for all Fort Niagara’s scores in the fourth frame on two hits, two errors and two wild pitches.  Peek fanned both men in chalking up the victory, which balanced a previous Fort Niagara loss to Kansas City earlier in the season. 


The Fort Niagara championship teams included several other prominent athletes, including Orval Cott Sr., who was involved with the St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers; Herman Broska; James Moody; Alfred Cervi, who after the war played in the early National Basketball Association and is a member of the NBA Hall of Fame who is buried in Monroe County; and Robert Nugent, who also had a brief stint in the NBA.

After 1942, many of the Fort Niagara championship players were either discharged or transferred as the war effort increased. Peek, for example, was shipped to Europe to fight as a tank commander in General George S. Patton’s Third Army.

Such transfers marked the end of Fort Niagara as baseball powerhouse and the installation shifted away from having a high-profile “road team” to focus on intramural ball leagues between the various regimental companies serving at the fort.

There were other major impacts on baseball from the war. In 1943, because professional baseball had lost so many of its players to the war effort, several major league owners decided to launch the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which was the first women’s professional sports league in the United States. More than 600 women played in the league, which consisted of 10 teams located in the American Midwest.

The war was to last another two years before some soldiers, and the baseball players among them, would be finally coming home.

As for Peek, he returned from the service in time for the 1946 season, at the age of 31, and spent the rest of his baseball career in the minors, with the Yankees farm club, the Newark Bears, before finishing in 1948 with the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League. His eight seasons in the minors resulted in a 73-44 record.

Other former Fort Niagara players turned to other sports after the war.

A 5-11 point guard, Al Cervi of the championship Fort Niagara baseball team later played for the Syracuse Nationals in the NBA between 1949 and 1953. (Photo Credit- Findagrave.com)

But not all were to come home, like Hank Nowak, a Buffalo native and minor league pitching prospect with the St. Louis Cardinals who was posted at Fort Niagara after his induction in 1942 and later went to play on an Army team in Virginia.

Transferred to an infantry unit in Europe in October 1944, Nowak was killed New Year’s Day 1945 during the Battle of the Bulge.

Also among the fallen was John Zulberti, who played on the championship Fort Niagara team. A star athlete at Solvay High School near Syracuse, he had later played in the Suburban League and the Canadian-American League before being inducted into the service. Zulberti was killed in action in Italy in January 1944, one of the more than 150 minor league players to lose their lives in the war.



Cover Shot- 1942 Championship team at Fort Niagara. Photo credit- Old Fort Niagara Association

Post by Jere Brubaker, Curator/Assistant Director, Old Fort Niagara Association, and Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, NYS Parks


Learn more about the lives and sacrifices of baseball players during Word War II at https://baseballinwartime.com/

Learn more about the Old Fort Niagara Association, a not-for-profit Friend group founded in 1927 that operates the historic fort site and provides interpretive programming. In 2019, the Fort welcomed more than 230,000 visitors from throughout the world.

Women’s History Month for 2021 at New York State Parks

Women’s history has played a prominent role in the story of New York State, and some of these stories can be told through State Parks and Historic Sites.

In honor of Women’s History Month in March, the falls at Niagara Falls State Park will be illuminated March 7 in the historic suffragist colors of gold, white and purple starting at 6 p.m., and continuing on the hour through 11 p.m. The colors were the symbol of the National Woman’s Party, which advocated for women’s right to vote in the early 20th century.

According to a 1913 statement by the union, “Purple is the color of loyalty, constancy to purpose, unswerving steadfastness to a cause. White, the emblem of purity, symbolizes the quality of our purpose; and gold, the color of light and life, is as the torch that guides our purpose, pure and unswerving.”

The purple, white and gold flag of the National Woman’s Party. (Photo Credit- National Museum of American History/Behring Center)

Women’s History Month originated as a national celebration in 1981 when Congress requested that President Ronald Reagan proclaim the week beginning March 7, 1982 as “Women’s History Week.” In 1987, Congress passed legislation establishing March as “Women’s History Month” and Presidents have issued annual national proclamations on the event since 1995.

Here in New York, State Parks events and programming will bring some of these stories to life include:

  • Jones Beach Energy and Nature Center, Jones Beach State Park:  The center, which explores how energy consumption shapes the natural environment, will feature a series of professional profiles of women involved in the conservation and renewable energy fields entitled “Women & the Green Economy.” Themes including marine conservation, coastal resilience, solar energy and power distribution will illuminate the roles of women in New York State and the nation.
  • Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site, Yonkers: A tour of the Colonial-era mansion will explore the potential relationship between George Washington and Mary Philipse, daughter of the Lord of Philipsburg Manor and a Loyalist during the American Revolution, based on the 2019 novel “Dear George, Dear Mary” by author Mary Calvi. Guided tours start at 1 p.m. March 6, March 13, March 20 and March 27; attendance is limited to COVID-19 safety protocols. The event is free for children and Friends of Philipse Mantor Hall, $3 for seniors and students, and $5 for adults. Advance registration is available by calling (914) 965-4027.
  • Clermont State Historic Site, Germantown: A Facebook Live presentation and lecture entitled “Suffrage in the Hudson Valley” will focus on the fight for women’s rights that resulted in the passage of women’s suffrage in 1917 in New York State, and nationally in 1920 with passage of the 19th Amendment. Presented by Ashley Hopkins Benton, Senior Historian and Curator of Social History at the New York Museum, the event begins at 2 p.m. March 13. Registration is available here.
  • Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site, Newburgh: A presentation on the life of Martha Washington by Parks interpreter Karen Monti will be available on YouTube starting at 2 p.m. March 21. It will be followed by a presentation of the 2021 Martha Washington Woman of History Award to Sue Gardner, a published author, deputy historian for the town of Warwick, and a reference/local history librarian at the Albert Wisner Public Library. The program can be located by searching YouTube for “Palisades Interstate Park Commission Television.” More information is available by calling (845) 562-1195.
  • Clermont State Historic Site, Germantown: Interpreters will share a variety of stories on past women and girls in a program outside at the site at 2 p.m. March 20, as well as on Facebook in the event of poor weather. Registration is available here.
  • Clermont State Historic Site, Germantown: A free Facebook Live presentation will be made 2 p.m. March 6 on the story of Serena Livingston, which includes her courtship with a famous writer, her unhappy marriage to a famous general, and her adventures in the Old West. Registration is available here.
  • Jay Heritage Center, Rye: A Zoom virtual event will be held 6 p.m. March 8 by award-winning historian and Wall Street Journal columnist Dr. Amanda Foreman for a behind-the-scenes look at her documentary, “The Ascent of Woman” – the inspiration for her forthcoming book,  ‘The World Made by Women: A History of Women from the Apple to the Pill,’ scheduled to be published by Penguin Random House in 2022. Currently, Foreman is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal bi-weekly ‘Historically Speaking’ and an Honorary Research Senior Fellow in the History Department at the University of Liverpool. She is a co-founder of the literary nonprofit, House of SpeakEasy Foundation, a trustee of the Whiting Foundation, and an Honorary Research Senior Fellow in the History Department at the University of Liverpool. Registration is available here.
  • Grafton Lakes State Park, Grafton: A presentation will be made on the story of Helen Ellett, who was the second female fire tower observer in New York State, working at the parks Dickinson Fire Tower between 1943 and 1965. Ellett’s work influenced the creation of the Grafton Fire Department. The March 14 event will be held at 10 a.m. until noon, and again from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Preregistration is required no later than 4 p.m. March 9, and can be made by emailing graftonlakessp@parks.ny.gov. Attendance is limited due to COVID-19 safety protocols. Check out this slideshow of Helen Ellett at work…

And there are numerous State Historic Sites and Parks with links to women’s history that are outlined below.

Ganondagan State Historic Site 7000 County Rd 41, Victor, NY 14564: The women of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) lived in a society that afforded them a level of equality and freedom centuries before similar rights would be given to other women in the United States. Haudenosaunee women of the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Mohawk, and Oneida chose their chiefs, owned and managed their own property, and held key political positions. When women in New York State began to organize to demand their rights, the Haudenosaunee provided a model of equality. Learn more here.

Caroline Parker Mount Pleasant, of the Seneca Wolf Clan, shown circa 1850 in an daguerreotype taken for Lewis Henry Morgan. (Photo Credit – New York Heritage Digital Collections)

Clermont State Historic Site1 Clermont Avenue, Germantown, NY 12526: Alida Schuyler Livingston was the matriarch of an influential early American family, but she was also a powerful businessperson in her own right who, along with her second husband, exerted significant political and economic influence in Colonial New York. She was part of a larger tradition of Dutch entrepreneurial women in the early colony that thrived thanks in part to the equal economic rights afforded to men and women under Dutch legal tradition. Learn more about her here and here.

Alida Schuyler Livingston. Photo Credit- Clermont State Historic Site.

Johnson Hall State Historic Site139 Hall Avenue, Johnstown, NY 12095: Known at different times of her life as Konwatsi’tsiaienni and Degonwadonti, Molly Brant was a Mohawk woman likely born sometime around 1736 and grew up near what is now Canajoharie, Montgomery County. By the age of 18, Molly was already beginning to participate in local politics and likely met Sir William Johnson, the royal English representative to the Native People of the Mohawk Valley, as she interacted with leaders in the area. Eventually, she and Johnson would become romantically linked and Molly would have eight children with him while living at his estate, Johnson Hall. She spoke her native Mohawk and dressed in the Mohawk style all her life and, after Johnson’s death, Molly would return to the Mohawk and lead as a Clan Mother during the turbulent Revolutionary War period. Learn more here.

A design for a 1986 Canadian postage stamp featuring an image of Molly Brant. (Photo Credit- National Park Service)

John Brown Farm State Historic Site 115 John Brown Road, Lake Placid, NY 12946: Abolitionist John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry before the Civil War earned him a prominent place in history books, but the contributions of his daughter, Annie, have been overlooked for more than a century. Committed to the freedom of the enslaved, Annie served as a lookout for the conspirators leading up to the raid on an armory in Virginia, and was vocal in the shaping of her father’s legacy in public memory, speaking stridently against depictions of him as “mad.” Learn more here and here.

Annie Brown, daughter of John Brown. (Photo Credit- U.S. Library of Congress)

John Brown Farm remains as an historic site today in part due to the actions of another New York woman: Kate Field. Field was an American journalist, editor, outdoorswoman, and actress who helped to purchase the farm eleven years after the 1859 raid in order to preserve it “as a public park or reservation forever.” Learn more about her here.

Kate Field (Photo Credit- New York Public Library)

John Jay Homestead State Historic Site400 Jay Street, Katonah, NY 10536:Founding Father John Jay would serve New York as governor and the country as its first Chief Justice, but his daughters had a strong hand in managing his household and estates. Learn more about the Jay women here.

Jay Heritage Center 210 Boston Post Road, Rye, NY 10580: The Jay family also owned an estate in Rye, New York, where young John Jay was raised. The land remained in the family for generations and was vital in inspiring one of America’s first female landscape architects, Mary Rutherford Jay, John’s great-great granddaughter who began her practice at the turn of the 20th century. Learn more here and here.

Mary Rutherford Jay (Photo Credit- Jay Heritage Center Archives)

Lorenzo State Historic Site17 Rippleton Road, Cazenovia, NY 13035: The Federal-style mansion at Lorenzo looks out onto a garden designed in 1914 by Ellen Biddle Shipman, a woman pioneer of landscape design, to enhance her father’s garden layout with more formal perennial beds. In 1983, restoration was begun following that 1914 plan and today the garden and grounds are available to the public and are often used for wedding ceremonies and receptions. The Lorenzo grounds are open year-round. Plan your visit here.

Ellen Biddle Shipman in her home circa 1920. (Photo Credit- Wikipedia Commons)

Oriskany Battlefield State Historic Site7801 New York 69, Oriskany, NY 13424: During the Battle of Oriskany in the Revolutionary War, Oneida womanTyonajanegen (Two Kettles) accompanied her husband Han Yerry Tewahangarahken into battle, reloading his musket for him after he was wounded. She was known for her valor and her skills as a horsewoman, riding quickly to Fort Schuyler to warn of a coming attack. Learn more here.

National Purple Heart Hall of Honor – 374 Temple Hill Road Route 300, New Windsor, NY 12584: The National Purple Heart Hall of Honor has a mission to collect, preserve and share the stories of Purple Heart recipients from all branches of service and across all conflicts for which the award has been available. While there is no comprehensive list of Purple Heart recipients maintained by the government, the Hall maintains a Roll of Honor of recipients submitted by friends, family, and the recipients themselves. For the month of March, the Hall will feature 20 women recipients and additional women recipients on the site’s Facebook page.

Here is one such story, of U.S. Army Sgt. Cari Anne Gasiewicz, a native of Depew, Erie County. Sgt. Gasiewicz served two tours in Korea, where her aptitude for languages prompted her superiors to send to study Arabic at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, she served Iraq as an Arab language linguist with a military intelligence unit.

When her unit was being redeployed from Iraq to Kuwait, she volunteered to drive a supply truck rather than leave via aircraft. On the drive, her vehicle was hit by two I.E.D.s. (improvised explosive device) killing the 28-year-old  on 4 December 2004. In her honor, the Defense Language Institute, located at the Presidio of Monterey in California dedicated Gasiewicz Hall in her name. It is the first building there named for a woman.

Sgt. Carrie Ann Gasiewicz (Photo Credit- National Purple Heart Hall of Honor)

Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site32 Catherine Street, Albany, NY 12202: The success of the Hamilton musical has generated quite a bit of public interest in the Schuyler family history. Learn about Angelica Schuyler’s contributions to military intelligence on the patriot side during the Revolutionary War here. Learn about the stories of enslaved women at the mansion here. Tours of the restored mansion can be reserved in advance here.

Portrait of Mrs. John Barker Church (Angelica Schuyler), her son Philip, and a servant. (Photo Credit- Wikimedia Commons)

Bear Mountain State ParkPalisades Parkway or Route 9W North, Bear Mountain, NY 10911: Considered Colonial America’s first female botanist, Jane Colden (1724-1760) grew up on her family’s farm west of Newburgh. Orange County. After showing an early interest in plants, she went on to write her own Botanical Manuscript describing over 300 native flora. At the end of March, the park will unveil a hand-painted sign detailing Colden’s contribution to botany in the Hudson Valley. It will be located at the Jane Colden Garden at the park’s Trailside Museums and Zoo.

Staatsburgh State Historic Site – 75 Mills Mansion Drive, Road #1, Staatsburg, NY 12580: Ruth Livingston Mills, scion of the wealthy Hudson Valley Livingston family, was a dominating presence in the upper class social circles of the Gilded Age, entertaining from her grand Staatsburg mansion on the Hudson River in Dutchess County. Learn more here about a mysterious artist who painted the portrait of Ruth Livingston Mills and its connection to the suffrage movement for women’s rights.

The portrait of Ruth Livingston Mills. (Photo Credit- Staatsburgh State Historic Site)

Letchworth State Park Castile, NY, 14427: While preservation of the park’s scenic beauty and historic assets is the work of William Pryor Letchworth, his right hand in preserving “The Grand Canyon of the East” was his indispensable secretary, Caroline Bishop. She worked with Letchworth for 27 years, living at the Glen Iris estate with him and the rest of his staff and, after his passing, became the park’s first superintendent and Librarian/Curator of the park’s museum.

Letchworth also was the setting for the story of Mary Jemison, a Scotch-Irish colonial woman adopted by the Seneca during the French and Indian War. She later gained notoriety after writing a memoir of her life. After her death, her body was reinterred near the historic site of a Seneca council house, now within Letchworth State Park.

Statute of Mary Jemison at Letchworth State Park (Photo Credit- Letchworth State Park)

Saratoga Spa State Park – 19 Roosevelt Drive, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866: Grace Maguire Swanner graduated from Albany Medical College in 1933 and devoted much of her life outside of private practice to helping to preserve the park’s Lincoln and Washington baths. Dr. Swanner was named acting medical director of the spa in 1953, began a school of massage as a training facility for the spa, and  later wrote  a book detailing the geologic and sociologic history of the park called “Saratoga Queen of Spas”.  

Dr. Grace Maguire Swanner.

The State Parks Blog also has recent posts on women in New York State history, including Beatrice Mary MacDonald,  a World War I nurse who became the first woman to be awarded the Purple Heart; Annie Edson Taylor, a Finger Lakes native who became the first person to survive a plunge over Niagara Falls in a barrel; noted African American abolitionist and suffragist Sojourner Truth; and even anti-suffragists in New York who allied with efforts to deny them from obtaining the vote.


Cover Shot- NYS logo in the colors of the National Woman’s Party. (Photo Credit- National Park Service)


Post by Mary Patton, Historic Preservation Program Analyst, Division of Historic Preservation.

When Ice Came from the Hudson River: Ice Harvesting in Staatsburg

Before the invention of electric refrigeration, how did food and perishables keep cold, especially during the warm summer months?  The answer is ice.  Large blocks of ice cut from a river or lake during the winter would keep food items cool all summer.  But how did the ice move from there into the home?

That feat was the work of an expansive ice harvesting industry, which was active throughout much of the northeast coast of the country (as well as inland, in northern states) between the 1830s and 1920s, and which was dominated for several decades by production on the Hudson River and nearby lakes.

Workers guide a horse pulling an ice-cutting rig on the Hudson River, circa 1912. (Photo Credit – New York State Archives # A3045- 78_830)

Although Staatsburg in Dutchess County is a quiet hamlet today, it was once a bustling hub of the ice harvesting industry.  Ice was a very valuable natural resource, which required an impressive amount of infrastructure and investment to cut and transport to customers. The labor came from a small army of men and horses.

In the 19th century, as cities grew in size and population, the demand for ice to preserve food and cool people in warm weather grew tremendously, as urban populations did not have immediate access to frozen ponds and rivers.  Hamlets and towns along the Hudson developed a robust trade to supply the demand downriver in New York City, and export ice to other, farther-flung locations.

Another significant consumer of ice was the brewing industry, which used ice in regulating the temperature of fermentation so that beer could be made year-round rather than in a limited number of months.  As the meat-packing industry grew, it too consumed large quantities of harvested ice. 

Records by two different ice companies reflect the harvests from Staatsburg and Rockland Lake in this April 1866 report in the Rockland County Journal. (Photo Credit – Peter Stott, “The Knickerbocker Ice Company and Inclined Railway at Rockland Lake,” Journal of the Society of Industrial Archeology, Vol. 5, No. 1 (1979), page 9)

Some households, like the affluent Gilded Age owners of what today is the Staatsburgh State Historic Site, had the luxury of filling their ice house with ice from a body of water adjacent to their property, but others did not have the same resources and had to purchase ice.

This country estate and 79-room mansion of the very wealthy Mills family frequently hosted parties of houseguests for elegant weekends, and boasted all of the era’s cutting-edge technology and luxurious amenities available, including electricity, gravity-fed plumbing and ice-cooled culinary delicacies.

With a large staff of estate and farm workers, Staatsburgh had the labor needed to cut and store a year-round supply of ice from the Hudson for its own icehouse each winter. A period photograph of the estate buildings at the river’s edge suggests the location of the now missing icehouse: a peaked roof appears behind the double-roofed boathouse complex on the water, and to the right of the powerhouse, which generated electricity for the estate. (While the powerhouse still stands along the riverbank, its chimney, seen in this photograph, no longer exists).

This photo likely depicts Staatsburgh’s now-removed icehouse, its peaked roof visible behind the double-roofs of the boat house, and to the left of the powerhouse and its chimney. This location would have placed the icehouse on the incline of a steep slope toward the river, which was needed for drainage of melt water from the icehouse. (Photo Credit – NYS Parks)

Judging from this photo, the estate’s icehouse sat several yards away from the riverbank, on a fairly steep incline, which would have provided the excellent drainage needed as ice melt occurred during the year.  Icehouses uniformly had a system of drainage at their base, along with insulated walls (often double walls) and interiors carefully designed to reduce humidity (which promotes melt) and provide maximum insulation.  A well-designed icehouse, packed expertly, could provide ice a full year until the next ice harvest.

As seen below, the ice box inside the mansion at Staatsburgh is quite large, meriting an entire room in the basement as part of the house devoted to food preparation.  It bears a brass label reading, ‘The Lorillard 1168 Broadway,’ which identifies its maker.  Lorillard was a company that manufactured refrigeration units from 1877 until approximately 1920.  The company produced some of the most expensive iceboxes on the market which could be found in the homes of wealthy families like the Vanderbilts, Carnegies and the Mills.

The Lorillard brand icebox at the Staatsburgh mansion was top of the line during the Gilded Age. (Photo Credit – NYS Parks)

Producing and storing ice had been practiced since ancient times in Asia and other parts of the world, by controlling evaporation, but in America, the impetus for a fast-growing ice harvesting industry, drawing on naturally-produced ice in cold weather, is credited to the “Ice King of Boston,” a man named Frederick Tudorwho between 1805 and 1836, developed technical advances that made ice harvesting and storage profitable, creating a mass market for ice. Through tireless experimentation, Tudor reduced loss from ice melt in storage from 66 to 8 percent, and created markets for shipping his product in southern states and the Caribbean.

One of Tudor’s employees, Nathaniel Wyeth, patented the horse-drawn ice cutter which was the first tool to cut even-sided, regular blocks of ice. Before his invention, ice was hacked out in irregular chunks, which led to much loss from melt and inefficient shipping and storage. Wyeth’s innovation made possible a viable ice industry.

Another premier site for ice production in New York State was Rockland Lake approximately 30 miles north of New York City on the Hudson River’s western shore in Rockland County. Now the location of Rockland Lake State Park, beginning in 1831 ice from the frozen 256-acre lake was transported with the aid of gravity about 150 feet down to the river for shipping to the city. A steam-driven inclined railway for its transport was completed by 1860. Improved machinery to replace human and horse power continued to be developed throughout the age of ice harvesting. 

A steam-powered inclined railway brought ice from Rockland Lake for shipment to New York City markets. (Photo Credit – NYS Parks)

Despite rapid expansion, the Hudson Valley ice harvesting trade was consistently outrun by increasing demand for ice, as populations grew, cities expanded, and industries to feed people increased. Complicating things further, ice harvesting was dependent on the weather, and, as a reporter on the trade in 1880 described, “…in not more than two out of three years is the crop a fair one.”  An ill-timed week of warmer temperatures or a rain storm could dramatically reduce the ice yield.  

To meet consumer demand and surmount the vagaries of weather, inventors were keenly focused on developing efficient artificial ice production and refrigeration. In its heydays — between 1840-1920, however, the Hudson Valley ice trade employed up to 20,000 men (and a thousand horses) during the intense weeks of cutting and storing the cold-dependent commodity. Ancillary industries sprung up along the river: barges and ships designed specifically for ice transport, enormous icehouses, ice tool businesses, stables, boarding houses for workers and fields to grow the insulating hay and timber for dunnage (material used to keep cargo in position in a ship’s hold). 

This illustration shows the design of barges made to transport ice down the Hudson River. By 1880, author Henry hall reported that “On the Hudson, a large fleet of barges, built especially for the trade, are employed. There are about 100 of them at present…They carry from 400 to 1,100 tons of ice… A small windmill revolves around the top of the roof [of the cargo house] and drives a pump for clearing the hold of water from the melting ice.” (Photo Credit – Henry Hall, The Ice Industry of the United States: With a Brief Sketch of its History and Estimates of Production in the Different States. SOURCE: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Census Division, Tenth Census, 1880., vol.22, Washington, Government Printing Office, 1888)

From approximately 1840 to 1920, ice was harvested from the Hudson River, particularly north of Poughkeepsie. The ice near New York City was not used because, as an estuary, it contained too much salt, which would result in ice that resisted freezing and melted more quickly than the ice from freshwater further north.    

Ice harvesting began in January and on average continued for about six to eight weeks or until the icehouses were filled. The harvesting season was very limited and ice had to be at least six inches thick to be cut, since melting would have occurred in storage and transit; conversely, blocks too large were unmanageable for workers to transport. Men accompanied by horses, and later aided by steam-driven mechanical devices, often worked ten hours a day and seven days a week harvesting and storing ice. In January 1895, the Poughkeepsie Eagle-News reported that many pack peddlers abandoned their routes to work at ice harvesting. Residents of the mid-Hudson Valley who made bricks or farmed in the warmer months, found good employment in the winter harvesting of ice, while other workers handled the shipping of stored ice to markets in the fall, summer and spring.

The process of harvesting ice from the river involved clearing snow or dirt from the surface with horse drawn plows, and sometimes planing smooth the surface.  The area was measured and then scored into a grid by a horse-drawn “marker,” resembling a plow.  Another tool (Wyeth’s ice plow, or a derivative of his invention) then cut blocks free. The long lengths of ice were then floated toward the shore in an open water channel. Once they neared the ice house on shore, a final cut was made with a 4 or 5 foot-long handheld saw.  The ice was moved into the ice house by a horse-drawn or, later, steam-powered elevator or conveyor belt. Workers used a pole to hook the floating blocks of ice and position them on the elevator.  Inside the ice house, the blocks were insulated by sawdust and hay between layers to prevent them from melting and fusing. When the demand for ice began from March onward, barges carrying anywhere from 400 to 1000 tons of ice would ship the ice down the river to sell. 

A worker uses a hand saw to cut ice blocks , circa 1900. (Photo Credit – U.S. Library of Congress)

 In its heyday, Staatsburg had at least ten private commercial icehouses.  Many companies operated in New York City, but had an ice house in Staatsburg to store ice from that section of the river including the American Ice Company, the New York Ice Company, the Mutual Benefit Company and the Knickerbocker Ice Company.  According to an article in the New York Daily Herald published February 13, 1874, the Mutual Benefit Company had an ice house at Staatsburg that held 15,000 tons of ice.  The company employed 75 men, 10 boys, fivehorses, and a steam engine to fill the ice house.  The largest ice harvesting company was the Knickerbocker Ice Company, which was based in New York, but had ice houses all along the Hudson.  Their ice house in Staatsburg held 25,000 tons of ice and they employed over 10,000 men in the region. In 1896 they had a capacity for 1.8 million tons of ice, which was approximately 50 percent of the entire industry in New York. 

The icehouse for the American Ice Co. in Kingston. (Photo Credit – Kingston Daily Freeman – February 19, 1909)

In addition to commercial ice harvesting in Staatsburg, one of the most successful companies in the village produced tools for the trade. After J.H Bodenstein (1823-1875) emigrated from Germany, he settled in Staatsburg and started a blacksmith shop that made tools used for ice harvesting.  The business officially became the Staatsburg Ice Tool Works in 1868 and the family business continued for four generations. The family held approximately twenty patents for various ice harvesting and other tools including this one for an ice cutting tool.  A catalogue of their ice tools is found here.

The works sold their products both across the United States and abroad. The business lasted for more than a century before closing in 1984 when all of the buildings and equipment were sold by the fourth generation of the Bodenstein family.  

A catalogue for the Staatsburg Ice Tool Works illustrates a pair of ice tongs. (Photo Credit – J. G. Bodenstein & Co., Catalogue No. 102, accessed from Archives.org

A worker recalls his service at the Staatsburg Ice Tool Wors in the March 14, 1949 edition of the Poughkeepsie Journal.

 Once ice was cut from the river and stored in the ice house, its final destination was the ice box inside individual homes and restaurants, or businesses such as breweries and food transport. After the Civil War, ice boxes became affordable for the working class, which contributed to the growth of the ice harvesting industry.  

The end of it all came into view when the first electric refrigerator for home use was invented in 1913, but it was not until the late 1920s and several models later that the use of an electric refrigerator in the home became more common and affordable.  This rang the death knell for the ice harvesting industry.  Artificial ice was now able to keep food cold all year long and ice harvesting became a thing of the past by the 1930s.

Today the Hudson River rarely freezes long enough to produce ice of any useable thickness so ice harvesting really is a thing of the past in the Hudson Valley.  For a further look into ice harvesting in the Gilded Age and Staatsburgh’s high-end ice box, enjoy the following video from Staatsburgh interpreter, Frank Pidala.

Cover Photo – Workers use ice pike poles to guide blocks of ice through a chip canal to an ice house on the Hudson, circa 1912 (Photo Credit –
Photo: New York State Archives, #A3045-78_834)


Post by Maria Reynolds, Historic Site Assistant/Curator, Staatsburgh State Historic Site

“Grand Old Fort: but alas Manned by Colored Troops…” Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Ontario

When a U.S. Army regiment of African American soldiers arrived at Fort Ontario in the spring of 1908, it was in the wake of a racially-charged incident in Texas that had sparked a national controversy for President Theodore Roosevelt.

What happened at the historic fort in Oswego County during the next three years was part of the long American journey from racially segregated military units to the end of the practice in Korea in 1951.

The nearly three hundred men of the 24th Infantry Regiment arriving at the lakefront community were a unit of “Buffalo Soldiers,” which was the nickname given to segregated units of African American troops formed after the Civil War ended in 1865.

According to popular lore, Native Americans who fought the units used the term either because the soldiers’ dark curly hair resembled a buffalo mane or because the soldiers fought like the fierce Great Plains buffalo.

Just returned from military service in the Philippines, the soldiers of 24th Infantry were coming home to a political controversy still simmering around Buffalo soldiers from the infamous Brownsville Affair less than two years earlier.

At a time of Jim Crow laws, racial prejudice against African American military units remained strong in the U.S., most particularly in the South. After fatal violence in Brownsville, Texas was blamed on the 25th Infantry Regiment of Buffalo Soldiers who had just been stationed there from the Philippines, President Roosevelt had all 167 Black soldiers of the three companies involved summarily discharged, despite protests that evidence did not support the charges. Tellingly, Roosevelt did not discharge the unit’s white officers, who testified that all their soldiers were in barracks at the time of the incident.

That event was still fresh in the summer of 1907, when the U.S. Army announced it was stationing Buffalo soldiers east of the Mississippi for the first time by bringing the 24th to Fort Ontario. The unit found itself in a political firestorm, with some local residents and political leaders objecting to the move.

During the early 20th century, the situation for Black soldiers in the U.S. Army was deteriorating rapidly.  Four decades after their formation, the Buffalo Soldiers were no longer needed far from the general population to fight against Native Americans in the west. Their overseas service in Spanish-American War (1898), the Boxer Rebellion in China (1899-1901) and the Philippine-American War (1899-1902) was at end as well.

Buffalo Soldiers on duty in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. (Photo Credit – U.S. Army)

A newspaper account describes Congressional efforts to disband all African American military units after the end of the Spanish-American War and in the wake of the Brownsville Affair. (Cleveland Enterprise, Jan. 4, 1907)

So, as these African American U.S. Army regulars returned to garrison life in the United States, the proponents of segregation and domination were pursuing their racist goals more fervently than ever. The Ku Klux Klan was approaching its pinnacle of strength and numbers, racist members of Congress tried to purge the four Buffalo Soldier regiments from the regular army, and in some states black National Guard regiments were eliminated and others relegated to labor duties.

Mindful of the professional pride, discipline, and assertiveness of African American soldiers, and perhaps of their access to weapons, white civilians in the mid-west and south vehemently objected to them being posted near their communities.

At Brownsville where Jim Crow laws were enforced, the black soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 25th U.S. Infantry Regiment immediately encountered racial discrimination, physical abuse, and threats from local businesses, civilians, and customs collectors.  After being accused of going on a midnight shooting spree on Aug. 12-13, 1906 that left a civilian bartender dead, the entire regiment was dismissed by President Roosevelt over numerous objections that the accusations may have been unjust and racially motivated by the townspeople.

Roosevelt’s reaction to Brownsville shocked his Black civilian constituency and the Constitution League, a national interracial civil-rights organization, which along with many whites decried his action. But the decision stood until 1972, when the Army reinvestigated and reversed Roosevelt.

A 1906 political poster criticizes President Theodore Roosevelt for his mass discharge of the Buffalo Soldiers after the factually-disputed Brownsville Affair. (Photo Credit – U.S. Library of Congress)

President Roosevelt’s decision on the Buffalo Soldiers after Brownsville drew criticism from African American religious leaders at a time when they were reliable Republican political allies. Syracuse Post Standard, June 10, 1907

Perhaps seeking a northern posting for other returning Buffalo soldiers as a way of cooling racial tensions after Brownsville, the U.S. War Department announced in the summer of 1907 that when the 24th Infantry left the Philippines, it was being assigned to Fort Ontario and Madison Barracks in nearby Sackets Harbor in upstate New York.

Earlier, in rejecting a Texas senator’s demand to reassign Black troops before they arrived at Fort Brown, Secretary of War William H. Taft (who later became President) wrote that “sometimes communities which objected to the coming of colored soldiers, have, on account of their good behavior, entirely changed their view and commended them to the War Department.”  Taft added: “The fact is that a certain amount of race prejudice between white and black seems to have become almost universal throughout the country, and no matter where colored troops are sent there are always some who make objections to their coming.”

Before the Civil War, Oswego had been a hotbed of the abolitionist movement and active in the Underground Railroad, which was a a vast network of churches, safe houses, and community sites in New York and other states to help emancipate enslaved people reach freedom. The Oswego region later sent thousands of men to fight with the Union Army.  After the war, Oswego’s representatives in Congress were strong supporters of Reconstruction and civil rights for former slaves.

However, Taft’s observation that racial prejudice prevailed throughout the nation sadly rang true even in abolitionist Oswego. When news of the 24th coming reached the North Country, it prompted hysterical fears by some of disorder and lawlessness. 

A July 10, 1907 article in the Evening Times-Republican, of Marshalltown, Iowa, outlines the political opposition to the stationing of the Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Ontario in Oswego.

The fallout from the Brownsville Affair still occupied public attention when plans were announced to send the 24th Infantry Regiment to Oswego. The Scranton Tribune, Sept. 13, 1907.


Some residents sent petitions to the War Department and appealed to their Congressman, Charles Knapp, from Lowville, Lewis County, and State Republican Committee Representative and Oswego banker John T. Mott, who were both close friends of Roosevelt. Local newspapers paid closed attention to the firestorm.

Congressman Knapp didn’t file an official protest but instead attempted to have the white 9th U.S. Infantry substituted for the Black 24th.  He claimed motivation from the 9th having previously been garrisoned at Fort Ontario and Madison Barracks and containing many locally recruited soldiers whose families wanted them near home.


A headline in the Buffalo Morning Express, Sept. 13, 1907 questions why Black soldiers who fight for the U.S. are met with protests at home.

Having Knapp, Mott and local citizens object to the black soldiers drew fiery criticism from the national press and civil rights advocates, as well bitter resentment from Assistant Secretary of War Robert Shaw Oliver, an Albany resident buried in Albany Rural Cemetery. The apparent hypocrisy also drew the delight of southern racists.  But Oliver angrily declared that the “War Department knows no color line…” and sent the 24th to Oswego and Sackets Harbor as planned.

A article plays up the hypocrisy of Northern resistance to the presence of “colored” troops. July 11, 1907, The Daily Palladium, Oswego.

By fall, Shaw had settled the matter. The 24th was coming to Oswego, as these newspaper accounts of the time made plain.


In late March 1908, as the black troops arrived at Oswego, community leaders and the press had taken a wait-and-see attitude.  Little notice of the 24th’s arrival appeared in newspapers, but Oswego’s Daily Palladium newspaper reported that some restauranteurs discussed raising the price of food and drink to keep out Black troops; others said that they would maintain regular prices provided the troops conducted themselves decently.

For their part the 24th reacted to initial hostility with quiet professional pride and dignity; they quickly became active and beneficial members of the Oswego community.

First to benefit were the tailor shops who received orders to replace clothing lost when the 24th’s stored baggage was destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. The men had arrived with literally all the tropical climate clothing from the Philippines on their backs or in knapsacks. The 24th spent their pay and participated in community activities, ceremonies, parades, sporting events, veteran’s funerals, and the post orchestra performed regularly in the city.

This penny postcard (shown below) is an iconic artifact in the collection of Fort Ontario State Historic Site.  It coldly documents racism in the early 20th century U.S. Army officer corps.  Postmarked August 24, 1911, after the Buffalo soldiers had been in Oswego for several years, an unidentified colonel addressed it to a sergeant at the recruiting station in Trenton, N.J.  He wrote of Fort Ontario:   `Grand Old Fort but alas:   Manned by “Colored Troops” for which as you know I have no use. Well & happy, leave for VT. Friday.  Report for duty Sept. 6th. Absence of two ? mos.  Hope you are well.  Colonel.’  


The “Colonel” who wrote this was likely on leave visiting white officer friends at Fort Ontario and traveling to see others at Fort Ethan Allan, Vermont, garrisoned by black troopers of the 10th U.S. Cavalry Regiment who had arrived a year after the 24th arrived at Oswego.

This officer reflected a belief held by some commissioned officers who avoided assignment to black regiments, transferred out at the first opportunity, and refused promotions to such units. Some officers urged the united be eliminated or relegated to menial manual service. Many in the army believed that only southern whites knew how to command Black troops, and discouraged, harassed, and sought to drive out the few Blacks who sought to become or became commissioned officers.

Yet the Buffalo Soldier Regiments also attracted white commissioned officers without racist beliefs who were proud to serve in them.

By November 1911, the 24th was reassigned to the Philippines for a third time, with Fort Ontario and the community having each played its role in dealing with the contentious issue of racial segregation in the U.S. military at the turn of the 20th century.

While not without its tensions, Oswego managed to avoid the extreme displays of Jim Crow racism that had stained Brownsville with blood and led the 24th to be based in the north to prevent a possible repeat of it.

In Oswego, initial hysteria against the unit disappeared as white citizens fears towards the Black soldiers went unrealized.  The soldiers conducted themselves as gentlemen and were courteous towards civilians, but unlike white troops they were forced to prove themselves beyond any doubt before being trusted.

As Secretary of War Taft observed before the Brownsville Affair, once some communities gave black troops a chance, they praised and commended them to the War Department. After a uneasy and rocky start, Oswego became one of those communities.

In this colorized July 1908 postcard, the officers and men of the 2nd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment appear in full-dress for either inspection or parade at Fort Ontario. White officers are on horseback in the front, with other officers on foot at the rear and sides, while the Black enlisted me are on foot in double ranks. All are wearing white gloves. Another colorized postcard from July 1908 (below) shows the 2nd Battalion encamped in tents on the grounds as the post orchestra plays and spectators line the banks


For some of the Buffalo soldiers, Fort Ontario was their final post. One of the four members of the 24th Infantry buried at the fort is Sgt. Juneious Caldwell, a Kentucky native who had enlisted in 1901. He served in the Philippines, where he contracted a tropical disease that took his life at age 26 in July 1908 shortly after the unit’s return from the Pacific.

The marble headstone at the grave of Sgt. Juneious Caldwell at Fort Ontario State Historic Site.

Learn more about the history of the 24th Infantry Regiment in this 1983 report by L. Albert Scipio II, a U.S. Army officer and a faculty member at at Howard University, the Tuskegee Institute, University of Minnesota, Cairo University, University of Puerto Rico, and University of Pittsburgh. Scipio’s father was a member of the 24th from 1915 to 1942.


Cover Photo- Members of the 24th Infantry Regiment in the Philippines in 1902. (Photo Credit – U.S. Army) All other images NYS Parks unless otherwise noted.

Post by Paul A. Lear, Historic Site Manager, Fort Ontario State Historic Site

The General of Hearts

While the Grant Cottage State Historic Site marks the final days of a renowned Civil War leader and U.S. President, it also was the final chapter of a long love story, which seems appropriate to share with readers around Valentine’s Day.

Lying in bed inside the cottage as he drew his final breaths, only days after finishing wartime memoirs that he hoped would support his family after he was gone, Ulysses S. Grant held the hand of his wife as they shared a final gaze.

It was decades from the spring of 1844 when the 21-year-old U.S. Army lieutenant first met 18-year-old Julia Dent, the sister of his West Point roommate Fred Dent, while visiting the Dent family in St. Louis. There was an instant attraction between them that was fostered by time spent together. Julia remarked that “Lieutenant Grant… became a daily visitor… He was always by my side walking or riding.”

A young Ulysses S. Grant at about the time of the Mexican-American War.
Julia Dent, the object of the young officer’s affections.


On their way to a wedding in St. Louis, the couple encountered a rain-swollen creek. Julia was ready to turn back, but Ulysses was characteristically confident that he could navigate it. The nervous Julia said as they pulled up their carriage to the submerged bridge, “Now if anything happens, remember I shall cling to you, no matter what you say to the contrary.”

Once safely across the creek, Ulysses turned to Julia and proposed by asking if she would cling to him for the rest of her life. While the proposal came as a surprise for the young Julia, Grant’s boldness paid off as she agreed to wear his class ring as a symbol of their engagement.

But the coming Mexican-American war would separate them for four long years, inspiring the young officer to express his love in numerous romantically tinged letters to his faraway fiancée. Ulysses shared a sentiment that would echo across the rest of their lives, writing to his future bride: “In going away now I feel as if I had someone else than myself to live and strive to do well for.”

This sentiment would define their relationship but perhaps no more so than during his final weeks on Mt. McGregor as Ulysses fought to finish his memoirs to provide for Julia and their children.

In some ways Ulysses and Julia were like Romeo and Juliet, representing young people from different worlds on a collision course. Ulysses had grown up in an abolitionist ripe area of southern Ohio with antislavery parents. Julia, on the other hand, had grown up on a slave-holding plantation near St. Louis, Missouri. Neither of their fathers were keen on the match and for their entire lives there would remain some tension between the two families.

When Grant was in Mexico, he wrote young Julia often with a heartfelt yearning. “You can have but little idea of the influence you have over me Julia, even while so far away… absent or present I am more or less governed by what I think is your will.” Pining for their reunion he wrote, “I am getting very tired of this war and particularly of being separated from one I love so much.” And frequently he ended his letters with sentiments such as “Adieu dearest Julia. A thousand kisses for you. Dream of me” as shown below.


With the war finally over, in the summer of 1848 the couple were wed in a small ceremony at the Dent home in St. Louis. Among the groomsmen were three other soldiers who would later fight for the Confederacy, including Julia’s cousin James Longstreet. (Two decades later, Grant helped obtain a Congressional pardon for Longstreet, a prominent former Confederate general who supported Grant in his successful 1868 bid for the U.S. presidency.)

During the next 12 years of marriage, the Grants would endure the trials and separations of an army life, which included postings in upstate New York. His playful romantic gestures including a letter sent from a nearby town stating, “I find that I love you just the same in Adams [NY] that I did in Sackets Harbor [NY].” But frequent moves and a separation of almost two years strained Ulysses to the breaking point, prompting him to resign from the Army in 1854 to reunite with his wife and two young sons, Fred and Ulysses Jr. The couple would have two more children, Nellie and Jesse, before the end of the 1850s.

Conflict again claimed the devoted husband when the Civil War began in 1861. As fighting raged, the rising military star would not forget his wife and children, sending for them to join him in the field whenever possible. Ulysses strained to be the consummate family man and was a devoted husband and father. Julia would be his confidant and supporter through the trials of war.

The Grants pose for a formal portrait during the Civil War.

Ulysses, in his general’s uniform, Julia, and their son, Jesse, pose together at City Point, Va., the site of a major Union military installation and a headquarters for Grant during the Civil War.

As Ulysses assumed command of all Union forces and his fame grew, Julia began to feel as if she was too plain. She approached her husband on the subject of corrective eye surgery for her cross-eyed (strabismus) condition. He responded with the charming sentiment, “Did I not see you and fall in love with you with these same eyes? I like them just as they are, and now, remember, you are not to interfere with them. They are mine, and let me tell you, Mrs. Grant, you had better not make any experiments, as I might not like you half so well with any other eyes.”

After the war, Grant served as U.S. president from 1869 to 1877, and Julia would stand by her husband through those tumultuous years, offering advice on important matters at times. At their New Jersey cottage, known as the “Summer White House,” their playfulness would again emerge.

After watching his son Ulysses Jr. bound over the porch railing Ulysses. teased his wife, “If you were sitting here alone…and the cottage caught fire, you must be rescued or burn.” “You think so!” Julia replied playfully as she defiantly bounded over the porch railing as easily as her son had done.

President Ulysses S. Grant, and Julia, the First Lady.

The couple’s affectionate manner was always at the surface and was illustrated in another incident on their U.S. and world tour in 1879, when Grant was one of the most recognized Americans in the word. They had returned to the U.S. from abroad and were visiting a mine in Virginia City, Nevada.

At the entrance, the General made a wager with another gentleman that Julia would not make the harrowing descent deep into the mine. The gentleman secretly informed Julia that her husband bet money she would back out. She resolutely stepped up on the platform surprising Ulysses who questioned whether she really was going down into the mine. Julia uttered a simple “Yes” and Ulysses lost his bet.

Ulysses and Julia pose for a photograph after Julia (center, in light jacket) with Ulysses (right) cost him a bet by agreeing to descend into a Nevada mine.

The dedicated couple was able to enjoy a few years of happiness with their children and grandchildren before Ulysses entered his final struggle after being diagnosed at age 62 with terminal cancer in his throat. The couple had lost most of their money through a corrupt business partner, and Ulysses was determined to write a book about his wartime experiences in hopes that sales would support his family after he was gone. He was aided by his friend, famous American author Mark Twain.

To complete the book, Grant came to an Adirondack cabin in Wilton, Saratoga County, to accomplish his final mission. Throughout his six-week ordeal, Julia was by his side. Pushing through his pain, he finished his book and died on July 23, 1885, only four days after final proofreading of his manuscript.

A terminally ill Ulysses S. Grant at Grant Cottage in Wilton, Saratoga County, where he completed his memoirs shortly before his death. Julia sits by his side.

His resolve secured financial security for his family, who were supported through $450,000 in proceeds from what became a best-seller.

Years later, the widow of the great American hero would state, “For nearly thirty-seven years, I, his wife, rested and was warmed in the sunlight of his loyal love… and now, even though his beautiful life has gone out, it is as when some far-off planet disappears from the heavens; the light of his glorious fame still reaches out to me, falls upon me, and warms me.”

According to Ulysses’ last wishes, Julia would be placed in a matching red granite sarcophagus within Grant’s Tomb after her death in 1902. The two who loved each other so truly in life would now be together for eternity.

Grant’s Tomb, officially called the General Grant National Memorial, located in the Morningside Heights Neighborhood of Manhattan.

Post by Ben Kemp, Friends of Ulysses S. Grant Cottage Operations Manager


More About Grant Cottage


Located immediately below the summit of Mount McGregor in Saratoga County, the cottage and 43-acre site was recently named a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service.

The cottage is kept as it was during the Grant family’s stay. Open to the public seasonally by the Friends of the Ulysses S. Grant Cottage, visitors can tour its first-floor original furnishings, decorations, and personal items belonging to Grant.

Tours are scheduled to resume for the season in May 2021. Artifacts on display include the mantel clock stopped by Grant’s son Fred at the moment of his father’s death, and original floral arrangements from Grant’s funeral in August 1885.

Grant Cottage first opened as a historic site in 1890 when it was supported by funds raised by veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic.

The grounds surrounding the Cottage served as a tuberculosis sanitarium beginning in 1914, which in 1945 was converted into a veteran rest camp, until 1960 when it was repurposed and annexed as the Rome State School for disabled children until 1976. The Friends of Ulysses S. Grant Cottage was formed in the fall of 1989 to provide programming and tours, and partner with New York State Parks on site stewardship.

Learn more about the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant which are available online here.

Grant’s preface to the memoirs:

“Man proposes and God disposes.” There are but few important events in the affairs of men brought about by their own choice.

Although frequently urged by friends to write my memoirs I had determined never to do so, nor to write anything for publication. At the age of nearly sixty-two I received an injury from a fall, which confined me closely to the house while it did not apparently affect my general health. This made study a pleasant pastime. Shortly after, the rascality of a business partner developed itself by the announcement of a failure. This was followed soon after by universal depression of all securities, which seemed to threaten the extinction of a good part of the income still retained, and for which I am indebted to the kindly act of friends. At this juncture the editor of the Century Magazine asked me to write a few articles for him. I consented for the money it gave me; for at that moment I was living upon borrowed money. The work I found congenial, and I determined to continue it. The event is an important one for me, for good or evil; I hope for the former.

In preparing these volumes for the public, I have entered upon the task with the sincere desire to avoid doing injustice to any one, whether on the National or Confederate side, other than the unavoidable injustice of not making mention often where special mention is due. There must be many errors of omission in this work, because the subject is too large to be treated of in two volumes in such way as to do justice to all the officers and men engaged. There were thousands of instances, during the rebellion, of individual, company, regimental and brigade deeds of heroism which deserve special mention and are not here alluded to. The troops engaged in them will have to look to the detailed reports of their individual commanders for the full history of those deeds.

The first volume, as well as a portion of the second, was written before I had reason to suppose I was in a critical condition of health. Later I was reduced almost to the point of death, and it became impossible for me to attend to anything for weeks. I have, however, somewhat regained my strength, and am able, often, to devote as many hours a day as a person should devote to such work. I would have more hope of satisfying the expectation of the public if I could have allowed myself more time. I have used my best efforts, with the aid of my eldest son, F. D. Grant, assisted by his brothers, to verify from the records every statement of fact given. The comments are my own, and show how I saw the matters treated of whether others saw them in the same light or not.

With these remarks I present these volumes to the public, asking no favor but hoping they will meet the approval of the reader.

U. S. GRANT

MOUNT MACGREGOR, NEW YORK, July 1, 1885.