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! 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.
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 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.