The history of any area can look like a patchwork quilt. Even though there might be many small intricate pieces in the quilt, the broad overview usually gives great visual pleasure. A close inspection of a single patch usually tells a small but interesting story. These are my thoughts on one small patch of our History: transportation. Although a small topic, it had a huge effect on the direction of the city of Saratoga Springs.
The story of Saratoga Springs has always been the story of a resort destination. In 1802 Gideon and Doanda Putnam built the first hotel that was to provide accommodations to summer visitors coming for the healing mineral waters. One of the hardest parts of visiting Saratoga Springs in the early 1800s was how to get there, easily. In the early years of the village, it was a slow process for visitors to travel to Saratoga Springs mainly because of the available forms of transportation.
A diary of a woman from Mobile Alabama described her visit to the village in the early 1800s… Her trip started with boarding a sailing vessel in Mobile that took a great number of days to sail to New York harbor. She then took a steamship up the Hudson River to Albany where she then boarded a horse-drawn coach to make the last leg of the journey to Saratoga Springs. Her diary reflections were eye-opening when she described the journey as long and arduous, and that the easiest part of the trip was the 30-mile coach ride that took only eight hours. As a result of slow travel early visitors coming to the city were not in a hurry to leave and spent the majority of the season in the city.
Slow transportation would change in the summer of 1832 when a rail line from Schenectady was connected to Saratoga Springs. At the time it was only the second rail line to be built in the State of New York, showing the importance of Saratoga Springs as a summer destination. Even though the rail trip was slower than one of today, it was a much faster and more comfortable form of transportation for the time.
The concept of building a rail line to the village was the brilliant idea of a few citizens who wanted to increase tourism. Henry Walton, John Clarke, John Steele, Miles Beach, Gideon Davidson and Rockwell Putnam were the organizers. A special act was passed in the New York State legislature on February 15, 1831 to issue bonds to pay for the construction of the rail line in the amounts of $100/ share with a maximum of $300,000 to be raised. The group eventually raised $180,000 to pay for the 21.5 miles of rail line, and construction started in the spring.
Passengers were welcomed on the train in July of 1832 to travel from Schenectady to Saratoga Springs. Newspapers reported that by the summer of 1833 the railroad was fully operating, transporting passengers and freight. This radically changed the dynamics of the village of Saratoga Springs. Hotel registers show that the years before the operation of the railroad the total summer visitors were a few thousand. Once the railroad was operating, the number of visitors became a few thousand a week. This helped to ignite a boom in the village in the summer months. The railroad also brought diverse supplies of food to the hotels and new products to the shops on Broadway.
In the mid to late 1800s railroad travel increased as well as the steamships on the Hudson River. Many railroad advertisements showed how the evening south-bound train from Saratoga got passengers to Albany in time for an overnight sail down the Hudson to arrive in New York City by morning. What a great improvement- you could leave Saratoga after dinner and arrive in NYC by breakfast! Life had changed because of the ease of transportation. Accounts also show that the price had also dropped which allowed more members of society the convenience of a faster, affordable mode of transportation. Visitors came in huge numbers and the village exploded in activity every summer. In response, we built many hotels, some of which were some of the biggest in the country.
Mark Twain once said “The past doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” This is the truth for the history of our city when considering changes to the forms of transportation. In the early 20th century, the invention of the automobile would change the city again and cause widespread change. We had built a village in the 1800s that had thousands of hotel rooms that would be filled for the entire summer season because of the form of transportation. The invention of the automobile would give us an even faster, more independent form of transportation, but that increased speed and independence would cause new problems for Saratoga Springs.
As the use of automobiles exploded in the country, visitors could now split their vacation time between Saratoga Springs and other desirable destinations in the area. Niagara Falls, Cape Cod, Maine and the Jersey shore all were now attracting summer visitors away from the “Queen of American Spas,” Saratoga Springs. In time it was evident that we had over built our hotels to accommodate a different visitor population. People wanted their vacation time to be fast paced and diverse. By the 1940s with the occurrence of World War II and anti-gambling legislation, Saratoga would no longer fill her huge hotels and change was happening that would be drastic for the city. Saratoga’s economy began to slump.
By the early 1950s all of the city’s enormous, renowned hotels were gone. These huge hotels, rarely filled, made it hard to operate in the black, and were eventually razed. It was during this time that the city began to re-think its position as a resort destination. Over time our great city changed again to meet the demand of a new America. The power of Saratoga Springs has always been to adjust and re-imagine itself. In the future other factors will probably change, and challenge our city. It’s the creativity and foresight of its people that will allow us to continue making Saratoga Springs a great small city.
Rarely Seen Photos of Saratoga Springs
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