History of Saratoga

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Saratoga Springs is known as “the Queen of the Spas.” It has a rich heritage as a health resort and gambling center for much of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The area known as Serachtague, “place of swift water,” was sacred to the Mohawks and other Native Americans. They believed the naturally carbonated water had been stirred by the god Manitou, endowing it with healing properties. In 1771, Sir William Johnson, Superintendent of all Indian affairs in the British Colonies, wrote to Thomas Gage that he had lately visited a spring to the northward of Schenectady, a spring referred to as the “Spring at Kayaderosseras,” which most likely was the High Rock Spring.

During the Paleozoic Era, a series of faults, or cracks, split the underlying bedrock, creating fissures through which water forced its way to the surface. These springs are the only naturally carbonated mineral springs east of the Rocky Mountains. Early settler John Bryan built an inn above High Rock Spring. Gideon Putnam is the visionary who set out to create a spa resort in the midst of a wilderness. Gideon Putnam built his three-story tavern in 1802 across the road from Congress Spring. Putnam’s Tavern evolved through the years as Union Hall, The Union Hotel and finally the Grand Union Hotel. Many vast hotels were built over the years including Putnam’s Congress Hall, The Pavilion, The Columbian, The United States, and the Grand Central. Putnam laid out Broadstreet, today’s Broadway, and tubed Congress Spring in what is now Congress Park. He donated land for a burial ground, and become the first person to be buried there. Dwellings and businesses lined the street he created and tourists arrived by stage and buggy. In 1831, with the advent of the railroad, tourism blossomed. ‘Taking the cure’ at Saratoga was a firmly established tradition for thousands of visitors.

In 1863, a racing meet for thoroughbreds marked the beginning of “the oldest race track in America.” The race course bears the additional distinction of being the oldest sports facility in the country! With the exception of 1911 and 1912, when the track closed in response to gambling reforms, and 1943-45, when meets were canceled due to World War II, the track has continued to operate and grow in popularity. Attendance at the famous Travers Day race has been known to double the city’s population!

Health and Horses are the foundation of Saratoga’s History. Without the lure of the springs, settlers might easily have bypassed the region. Mineral water, for drinking and bathing, long a European tradition for the health conscious, was the impetus for the explosive development of the city. The arrival of the railroad in 1831 was a huge boon to tourism.

Dozens of springs were tubed for ease of access. Bath houses were built where patrons, hoping to cure a host of ailments, bathed in the mineral waters, under strict guidelines set by their personal physician. Guests sallied forth from boarding houses and elegant hotels for the ritual of walking, breathing the fresh air and “taking the waters.”

The summer season at Saratoga offered diversions as well: hot air balloon ascensions, hops, balls, Indian encampments, and afternoon carriage promenades down Broadway where people and horses were adorned in the latest finery. The wide porches on the huge hotels were also part of the social scene, a place for the influential to meet and mingle. Many a business deal was sealed during an afternoon meeting there. Excursions to Saratoga Lake were popular; lakeside strolls, steamboat rides, or regattas were often followed by fine dining at a
lakehouse restaurant overlooking the water. Legend has it that during one such feast at Moon’s Lake House, the potato chip was created in 1853.

Like the ambiance of the elegant hotels, Saratoga Race Track attracted those with money to spend frivolously. John Morrissey’s Club House, the current Canfield Casino and museum in Congress Park, opened in 1870. Following an afternoon at the race track, millionaires gathered to gamble for high stakes, surrounded by high Victorian elegance. Diamond Jim Brady, Lillian Russell, Lily Langtry, and Bet-A-Million Gates were among those who added glamour to the Saratoga scene.

Ornate mansions reflecting every type of Victorian architecture were built by the rich on North Broadway and around town from the 1870s to the turn of the twentieth century. Dubbed summer “cottages” by their wealthy owners, they hosted visiting Presidents, ex-Presidents, politicians and business magnates. Other notables, including Susan B. Anthony, Sarah Bernhardt, Caruso, Victor Herbert, John Philip Sousa, Daniel Webster, and Oscar Wilde also visited.

During the last quarter of the 19th century, a building boom reflected the village’s affluence: Town Hall, now City Hall, at the intersection of Broadway and Lake Avenue, opened in 1871. The first firehouse, an attractive brick building, with graceful curved doorways, was built in 1883 and massive commercial buildings sprang up along Broadway. Convention Hall, overlooking Congress Park, was built in 1893 with a seating capacity of 5000 to accommodate conventions, activities and sporting events.

At the turn of the century, the rise of anti-gambling sentiment initiated the decline, and subsequent demise, of several venerated establishments. Morrisey’s Club House, operating as the Congress Park Casino under the ownership of Richard Canfield, closed in 1907. In the absence of any interested buyers, the Casino property was purchased in 1911 by the village. The Race Track did not hold meets in 1911 or 1912, resulting in fewer visitors during the summer season. Unable to survive this loss of revenue, the Congress Hall Hotel, located near the Casino, closed. In 1913, the city bought the site, razed the building and added the property, with the previously purchased Casino property, to Congress Park, enlarging it to its current size. The Grand Union Hotel, generally noted as the largest hotel in the world, and the United States Hotel, two elegant and massive fixtures on Broadway, were razed in 1953 and 1945 respectively.

During the last years of the 19th century, the mineral springs were being depleted at an alarming rate. Gas companies, with no conservation laws or guidelines to deter overuse of the springs, pumped thousands of gallons of spring water just to extract carbonic gas for use in carbonated soft drinks and soda fountains. To conserve and preserve the mineral waters, the New York State Reservation was created in 1911 and the threat of the springs’ extinction was averted. The Lincoln and Roosevelt bath houses were built in the ‘Reservation,’ currently the Saratoga Spa State Park.

The Depression years began a downward spiral in the city as tourism dwindled. The 1940’s brought even more challenges for the city with the onset of gas rationing during World War II. The subsequent decrease in travel; the closing of the Race Track from 1943 through 1945, and the decline of the railroads, combined with post war economic uncertainty, caused severe financial problems for hotels and economic problems for the city. In 1951, the Kefauver Senate investigations shut down all the gambling casinos, and our lake houses began to disappear.

The start of the 20th century saw the addition of several major structures, including the current post office on Broadway, at Church Street(1911), the current fire station on Lake Avenue (1920), and a new high school (1923) on Lake Avenue, currently an elementary school. In addition, the Trask estate opened Yaddo as an artists’ retreat (1926), the Van Raalte Company reopened (1931), and the Harness Track opened (1941), but the city was still in a state of crisis. A series of devastating fires, including a blaze which killed eight, and another that destroyed several businesses on Broadway in 1957, heightened the sense of gloom. Fires continued to plague the city, with five major conflagrations in seven months, including a hospital fire and the loss of Convention Hall in 1965.

The 1960’s ushered in a series of major changes. The New York State Thruway (I-90), and the Northway (I-87) greatly increased the ease of access to the city by car. A master plan, created in accordance with the Federal Urban Renewal, changed the face and development of Saratoga Springs. The Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), the summer home of the New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra, opened in 1966. Light industries moved in to diversify the economic base.