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.
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.
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.
Gideon Putnam was the visionary who set out to create a spa resort in the midst of wilderness. 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 Broad Street, today’s Broadway, and tubed Congress Spring in what is now Congress Park. He donated land for a burial ground and became the first person to be buried there. Dwellings and businesses lined the street he created, and tourists arrived by horse and buggy.
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. Bathhouses 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 from boarding houses and elegant hotels for the ritual of walking, breathing the fresh air and “taking the waters.”
In 1863, a racing meet for thoroughbreds marked the beginning of “the oldest race track in America.” Saratoga Race Course bears the additional distinction of being the oldest sports facility in the country. Except for 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 race 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.
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 business deals were sealed during an afternoon meeting there. Excursions to Saratoga Lake were also popular; lakeside strolls, steamboat rides or regattas were often followed by fine dining at a lake house restaurant overlooking the water.
Like the ambiance of the elegant hotels, Saratoga Race Course 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 notable visitors included Susan B. Anthony, Sarah Bernhardt, Caruso, Victor Herbert, John Philip Sousa, Daniel Webster, and Oscar Wilde.
In 1871, a building boom reflected the village’s affluence: Town Hall, now City Hall, at the intersection of Broadway and Lake Avenue. 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. With fewer visitors during the summer season, 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, once 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 bathhouses were built during the ‘Reservation’ and currently reside in 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 closing of the Saratoga Race Course 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 (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).
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.