One thing never changes about Mt. McGregor: It has a spectacular view, stretching from the Adirondacks to the Green Mountains.
But who gets to see the view keeps changing. Over two centuries, it’s been a downward arc from being an exclusive resort north of Saratoga Springs to becoming a state prison.
It looks like Mt. McGregor state prison will close next year, so yet another transition lies ahead. Let’s hope for something more uplifting than razor-wire fences.
The closing will be a complication for the Grant Cottage State Historic Site on the prison grounds. It also has town officials wondering about the future. For now, they haven’t given up on fighting to keep the prison — and its 320 jobs.
The town of Wilton has fought the prison-closing fight before and won, but this time it feels like a done deal.
“My biggest concern is the 300 jobs,” said Wilton Supervisor Art Johnson. “These are people who live in and spend money in the community. There’s going to be a negative impact.”
If the 544-bed prison closes, Johnson said a facility for veterans or medical use might be the best alternative. Returning it to the private sector would be nice, he acknowledged, but seems unlikely.
“The state always promises to redevelop these facilities, but they’re so unique that it’s hard,” he said.
Grant’s cottage, meanwhile, has a different challenge.
The historic artifacts at the Grant site — including the late president’s actual bedding and “cocaine water” used to dull his pain — are now inside the prison’s security perimeter, protected by the prison guards.
“Some of us believe that it’s time to elevate Mt. McGregor into a state park, perhaps U.S. Grant State Park,” Tim Welch, president of the volunteers who run the site, said in an email.
The Department of Corrections referred questions about Mt. McGregor’s future to Empire State Development, the state’s economic development arm, which seems like a hopeful sign.
But an ESD spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for comment, which doesn’t. The state has closed 11 prisons and 28 juvenile detention facilities since 2009, and efforts to sell them haven’t come to much.
The mountaintop has a varied and colorful history.
Duncan McGregor, one of a pioneering family that arrived from Scotland in 1787, built a small hotel atop the mountain in the 1800s. The mountain became known, naturally enough, as Mt. McGregor.
Later, a group backed by Joseph Drexel — of the wealthy Philadelphia Drexels — bought the property in 1881 and built the Balmoral, a very fine hotel. It was destroyed by fire in 1897.
It was during the Balmoral era that the dying Ulysses S. Grant was invited to stay in a cottage on the hotel grounds. The Union hero of the Civil War came up in the summer of 1885 to complete his memoirs in the mountain quiet before an advancing throat cancer could kill him, and he died at the cottage on July 23, 1885. But not, the story goes, without being carried down to a clearing for one last look at the view.
In 1913, Metropolitan Life Insurance opened a sanatorium on the mountain for the benefit of company employees suffering from tuberculosis, which was then a scourge of the cities.
Better urban sanitation and medical breakthroughs brought an end to tuberculosis, and the sanatorium closed in 1945. The state bought it and, for awhile after World War II, Mt. McGregor became a spot where veterans came for a few weeks of rest after their return from the European or Pacific theaters.
The needs of war veterans diminished over time. In the 1960s, a school for the developmentally disabled was established. The school eventually moved down into the valley and became the Wilton Developmental Center, which closed in 1994. In 1976 the mountain property became a prison, filling needs created by all the people sentenced to long prison terms under the Rockefeller drug laws.
These days, the harshest drug-sentencing rules have been repealed, and the inmate population has been dropping. The minimum security wing, Camp McGregor, closed in 2009. State officials announced on July 26 that the medium-security section would close a year from now.
“Overall, it’s a loss for the community,” Johnson said.