As the warmth of summer fades and the colors of autumn surge, I’m reminded of the many summers that have made up the years of my life in Saratoga Springs. Summer in the Spa City is a wonderful experience that makes for great memories, no matter what the decade.

As a boy, summer was all about bicycles, pick-up games at the Eastside Rec, good friends, and sodas at neighborhood stores. It was also about warm August evenings that demanded sitting on our porch to rock away the night as it cooled enough for sleeping. It was about a slower time in a small city. Those memories make me think of the experiences of other Saratogians and summer visitors of the past. What did they do? What was popular? How did they spend a summer in old Saratoga? What was the nineteenth century like?

The nineteenth century was a time when the village was known as the number one tourist destination in the country. It was the place for the wealthy to “see and be seen” in the summer months. It was all about society and the slower pace of the day. It was a different time.

My walk back in time today is to the year 1882, courtesy of Stoddard’s Travel Guide of Saratoga Springs. The pocket guide cost $.25 in the day and not only guided guests to the highlights of the city but provides us today with a glimpse of the lifestyle of this resort destination. A quick read of the guide describes a village with many highlights that are different from today. 

For obvious reasons, no mention is made of movie theaters, restaurants, SPAC, Fasig Tipton Horse Sales, Spa State Park or the Avenue of the Pines. All those wonderful sites and more of today were not created until after 1882. The guide only dedicates 81 words to the description of the famed Saratoga Race Course that had been hosting racing for nineteen years by the time the summer of 1882 came along. This guide paints a much different picture than what we think today are the “must see” spots in the city. The limited description of the racetrack supports the idea that the track was an activity but not the central attraction of the day.

The big hotels offered the American Plan to their guests that provided visitors with a room but also three meals a day which meant the city had very few restaurants. Before the electric light was standard in the country, the policy was to serve the biggest meal of the day at 2:00 PM, with a lighter meal in the evening. Guests wishing to attend the horse races at Saratoga wanted to be back in their hotels for the largest of daily meals. Therefore, the time to race was shortened in those days, and was not the “day-long event” of today. 1882 was a time when the addition of electricity was coming slowly and therefore eventually would cause changes in many of those activities because of that great invention.

The vast majority of the travel guide was devoted to the hotels, the mineral springs and social activities. Stoddard’s Guide provides lengthy descriptions of all the mineral springs in the city as well as a guide to the many medical institutions that used mineral water as the “tonic” for better health. Saratoga Springs has changed drastically in the realm of mineral water use and appreciation. I have been amazed in the last fifty years at the increased ambivalence toward the mineral springs that made us so famous. People’s positive feeling toward the springs in 1882 is reflected in the guide as it provided many pages of information on each mineral spring, mineral content, medicinal use, and a recommendation of when to drink and in what quantity. This section of the guide provides a view of the real importance of the springs to many in this time period.

Since 1882 was a simpler time, the activities of the travel guide reflect that pace. The guide describes many walks and carriage drives for daily entertainment. Carriage rides to Saratoga Lake were a very popular, daily event. The opening description of this section says, “A few steps from the largest and most central of the hotels takes one out into the open country, where beautiful meadows stretch away in every direction.” The author continues to describe that every large hotel has its own private park, “which with congenial company, appears a very Eden.” Readers would have been shocked to know 139 years later that the city of today would be known as “The City in the Country”, and appreciated by residents, visitors, and new residents alike for that same reason.


I was happy to find that the guide contained a large section on Congress Park. Since my almost daily work today is at the Saratoga History Museum in that park, it is a frequent event to have visitors comment to me on the beauty of this famed park. This 1882 guide further states, “No Park of similar dimensions in the country excels it in natural beauty, or in elegance of architectural adornments.” It’s nice to know that visitors to Congress Park in 1882 were as pleased with the park as we are today. Further description of the park informs visitors that there was a small fee to enter the park, but the adjacent mineral springs were always free for use. The narrative further describes a safe, inviting space with daily music, abundant seating and beautiful paths that provide for relaxing strolls on warm summer days. Safety was highlighted with a description of adequate police protection and newly installed electric lights. Of interest to me was a map of Congress Park that reminded me that in 1882 the park was only half the size of today. In 1882 the park was only the southern part of today’s footprint since the land that contained the Canfield Casino and Spirit of Life was privately owned and would not be added to the park until 1912.

A hotel section reminds us that the hotels and boarding houses were vast in number and provided not only accommodations but also the social scene for many. This section begins with the passage, “Saratoga has the largest hotels in the world; the most perfectly appointed and the best conducted.” Listed in order of size were the Grand Union, United States, Congress Hall, Clarendon, Windsor, Kensington, American, Adelphi, Arlington, and Columbian. Many other smaller hotels were listed as part of the offerings for visitors needing accommodations. Many of these hotels were priced at about $3/day which included three meals.

The big three hotels, Grand Union, United States and Congress Hall all advertised their superb music, elegant balls, hops, and other social events as well as comfortable accommodations. I noticed a real importance to describe the fire safety of the largest hotels. Fireproof walls, containment procedures and adequate hydrants all helped to describe safe living conditions. This is not a strange addition since most of the large hotels had burned in years prior.

This is but a short glimpse back in time that I hope gives some perspective of how a summer in Saratoga was in 1882. Many new residents to the city comment on how the city has changed in the last few years. Those comments usually highlight thoughts that the city - years ago - was not as nice as today, and has been somehow rescued. My comment is that there has never been a bad summer in the history of our city. As time marches on, change occurs and when things are different it does not mean they are bad, just different. A smaller tight knit community with a slower pace was delightful. Those days are gone and are missed by many. I thank God that I was made a Saratogian, and if I was asked today “Is this heaven?” I would still answer “No, it’s simply Saratoga.” What a great little city. Enjoy the Saratoga of today but don’t think that others didn’t enjoy it throughout history, because they did.

High Rock Springs Sketch

Rarely Seen Photos of Saratoga Springs

Washington Spring

Washington Spring

The Washington Spring was on the grounds of the Clarendon Hotel. The Clarendon was located on the site of today’s Central Catholic High School on Broadway. This image c. 1875, shows the large number of visitors to that spring in the day.
Hathorn Drink Hall

Hathorn Drink Hall

In the later half of the 1800s drink halls became very popular. These halls were the scene of many social meetings for people to discuss ideas over a glass of our famed mineral water. The Hathorn Drink Hall is gone today but the spring still operates at the corner of Spring and Putnam Street.
Saratoga Racetrack Grandstand

Racetrack Grandstand

This image presents a view of the grandstand at the Saratoga Race Course about 1865. Racing on the present site started in the summer of 1864 after an inaugural year for the sport in 1863 across the street at Horse Haven.

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