A Destination for the Rich and Famous


Leland Opera House 1865

I bet more people than just Carly Simon have stated, “Well I hear you went to Saratoga,” not only in song but in conversation. You never know who you will see in Saratoga Springs. A few years ago, my good friend Dave had just paid for a coffee-to-go at Uncommon Grounds on Broadway and as he was leaving a man bumped into him in the doorway. They both stopped in the doorway and said “Sorry” to each other after the collision. While both men were standing there, a passerby on Broadway waved and loudly shouted, “Hi Dave.” My friend smiled and returned the greeting by saying “Hi,” but so did the other gentleman. My friend further explained that his name was Dave and that he had taught for many years at the local high school and seeing former students and friends was a common daily occurrence on Broadway in Saratoga Springs. The other gentleman looked at him and said, “Well, my name is also Dave... Dave Matthews” (the musician playing at SPAC that night!!).

Wow!!!! You never know who you will see or spill coffee on in Saratoga Springs.

History tells us that meeting famous people has been the rule and not the exception for the last two hundred years. It’s nice to know things don’t change. Since our city was the number one tourist destination in the United States in the 1800s you would expect the list of the rich and famous that visited in the summer to be long and distinguished, and it was. Our wonderful little city was the “watering hole” for anyone who was rich, powerful or famous. A British social writer, after visiting us in the summer, told readers, “If you are anybody in society then you should be visiting Saratoga during the season. If you haven’t been there, then you should get there, or you really are not as special as you think.” They came to Saratoga Springs, stayed in the hotels, drank the water and paraded around with the other pillars of society.

When making a list of famous people that have visited the city we can easily start with an impressive list of U.S. Presidents. Starting with Washington in 1783 we can add John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, Chester Arthur, Martin Van Buren, Grover Cleveland, Franklin Pierce, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Buchanan, Millard Fillmore, U.S. Grant,

James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Another noted leader, the Marquette De Lafayette; was so committed to America’s efforts in the American Revolution, that he was honored at a ball in Saratoga Springs on his tour of America in 1824. About the same time, the famous Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon and former King of Spain, visited the city and even made an unsuccessful offer to buy land here.

Famous orators like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster all visited our great city. Clay arrived at the United States Hotel and delivered a speech against the presidential candidacy of Martin Van Buren. On August 12, 1840 Daniel Webster gave a speech in Saratoga to a crowd of 10,000 and had the stage collapse during his opening remarks. Unhurt, he popped up from the wreckage and continued his speech for three more hours.

Noted authors like Oscar Wilde, Samuel Clement (Mark Twain), James Fenimore Cooper, and Washington Irving also visited the city. Samuel Clement assisted President Grant to publish his memoirs while staying at Mt. McGregor before his death in 1885. Author Washington Irving and former U.S. Secretary of State and former NY Governor William Henry Seward attended the wedding of Sarah Hardin to Reuben Hyde Walworth in Saratoga Springs in 1851. Washington Irving wrote “Rip Van Winkle,” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” As Secretary of State, Seward helped to make the deal for the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1869.

Musical figures like Chauncey Olcott, and Italian tenor Enrico Caruso all performed in Saratoga Springs. Chauncey had a summer home on Clinton Street called Inniscarra. Olcott was famous for composing the song “My Wild Irish Rose,” and writing the lyrics to “Irish Eyes are Smiling.” Enrico Caruso performed in Saratoga Springs as an operatic tenor. The Grand Union Hotel had added the Leland Opera House in the rear of the hotel in 1865 and it was dedicated by General U.S. Grant on July 4th of that year. The Opera House supported many very wonderful performances in the city. One of the most famous actresses and singers of the late 1800s and early 1900s was Lillian Russell. Lillian was seen in Saratoga many summers with her longtime friend Diamond Jim Brady. Both Lillian and Jim were the toast of Saratoga as well as the subject of many rumors of their possible romantic relationship.

The grand hotels competed to produce great social functions to attract guests for the season. The best food, drink, music and entertainment were found in these grand hotels. The Grand Union Hotel in 1902 had a music director by the name of Victor Herbert. He conducted his famous orchestra and many times new music was composed in the off-season to be introduced at summer balls at respected hotels. At the end of each night’s orchestra concert at the Grand Union, Victor Herbert always strolled the courtyard with security officer Tom Winn, to relax after the rigors of the performance. On one night while walking in the courtyard they heard voices coming from behind a clump of shrubs and the whispered words “Kiss me,” followed a few seconds later with the same voice saying, “Kiss me again.” It is said that this was the inspiration for Herbert to write the two act operetta Mlle Modiste with the hit song “Kiss Me Again.” In 1905 when the musical was a hit on Broadway, Tom Winn received two tickets to the performance with a note from Herbert that said, “Since you were at the birth, I thought you might want to see what it has grown into.”

In 1863 the Saratoga Race Course was founded by John Morrissey with the support of William Travers, Leonard Jerome and John Hunter. Jerome had a daughter named Jennie who later in life married Lord Randolph Churchill of England. Jennie and Randolph had a son they named Winston. In recent times the racetrack has supplied the city with many celebrity sightings from rock stars to top athletes and world class jockeys, trainers and owners.

Saratoga Springs also raised a few residents who became noteworthy in their field of work. City resident, Senator Edgar Truman Brackett’s son, Charles, grew up to be famous in the motion picture industry. As a director, he won three Academy Awards, for the movies Sunset Boulevard and Lost Weekend as well as an Academy Award for lifetime service to the industry. Another Academy Award winner from the city was Monty Wooley, son of W. Edgar Wooley who was a proprietor of the Grand Union Hotel in the late 1890s and early 1900s. As a young boy Monty was permitted to conduct the Victor Herbert Orchestra on the last few days of the summer season and after graduating college went on to a career in acting. Staring in the cinema hit “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” Wooley also won an Academy Award for Best Actor in “The Pied Piper.”

In the 1800s Saratoga Springs was a small city and–depending on the year–had a population of only 6,000 to 11,000 people, yet we attracted large numbers of the rich and famous for the summer season. Even today you never know who you will see, maybe even Dave Matthews. The list of famous visitors is much longer than the space allowed for this article and serves as a point of pride for our wonderful city. It’s safe to say that when they went to Saratoga... sometimes their horse naturally won.

Rarely Seen Photos of OLD SARATOGA Springs



This image was taken between 1872 and 1874 and shows the Grand Central Hotel in the background. The Grand Central Hotel opened in 1872 and burned on October 1, 1874. The cover over the Congress Spring is similar in style to the one of today that covers the Congress Spring in Congress Park.



This is an image of an advertisement for the world famous Grand Union Hotel that was located on the west side of Broadway between Congress and Washington Streets. The original core of the hotel was Putnam’s Tavern and Boarding House, built in 1802 by Gideon Putnam. By the 1870s it had grown to be the largest hotel in the world with beautiful accommodations.


This image is of one of the most popular springs in the city’s history. It was located at the site of, what we know today as The Mill on High Rock Avenue, north of the Farmers’ Market. It was frequently consumed by visitors in the afternoon and evening.


STAR SPRING • 1865 – 1870

The Star Spring is gone today, but was located between the High Rock Spring and the Empire on High Rock Avenue. A very popular spring, it was also bottled yearly and shipped to many far-off locations.

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