WRITTEN BY CHARLIE KUENZEL, PHOTOS PROVIDED BY THE GEORGE BOLSTER COLLECTION
In the 1800’s Saratoga Springs was the number one summer tourist destination in America. A guide book in 1845 wrote, “Saratoga was the most celebrated watering place on the globe.” Just like today - a top destination needed attractions, ease of travel and pleasant surroundings. Saratoga Springs had it all!
They first came for their health, and what was called the “kur”. They came seeking cures for ailments with the use of our mineral baths and drinking the healing waters that bubbled from the earth. In the early 1800s a work ethic prevented people from saying they were taking a vacation. The wealthy realized they could get around that problem by saying that they needed to restore their health, not take a vacation. What better location to restore one’s health than Saratoga Springs. Saratoga Springs continued to add events and attractions to entertain the guests of the city. For a city filled with visitors seeking better health, there also was a lot of alcohol consumption, gambling, dancing and nightly cavorting.
In the early 1800s it was hard to travel to Saratoga. Visitors used sailing ships, steamships on the Hudson, as well as horse drawn coaches to make the trip - which was long and very tiring. In 1832 the second rail line in New York State came from Schenectady to Saratoga Springs. The railroad shortened travel time and lowered the cost of travel significantly. The railroad changed visitor travel and helped the city explode with summer guests. Before 1832 it is estimated that no less than 6,000 people came during that summer. In 1833 it jumped to 8,000 and by 1835 it was estimated to be 2,000 per week. In 1850 a publication reported that Saratoga Springs had received over 35,000 guests that summer. The number of guests in 1850 is significant since our year round population at the time was only 4,650.
Thoroughbred racing was added in August of 1863 even though there was a shortage of horses since most were being used in the Civil War, and yet that short race meet drew a crowd of 5,000 for that inaugural event. John Morrissey adds his Saratoga Clubhouse in the summer of 1870 when he built what is today called the Canfield Casino. Now horse racing and elegant casino gambling was an option for those quiet times when summer guests were not consuming the healing waters. In 1894, 40,000 people visited the Canfield Casino.
Those summer visitors came to relax, gamble and also to see and be seen. We sometimes concentrate our attention on the rich and famous that came to Saratoga, but common people were here also. The common people found the money for short visits that would include seeing the famous during their stay. Many hotels reported that dinner menus were always disappearing, usually as free souvenirs of their brief summer visit to the Spa. James Buckingham commented on the use of Saratoga by the common visitor when he said, “By the modest payment of $2 per day, they may be seated at the same table, and often side by side
Webster, Aaron Burr and William Marcy. Musicians, writers, actors and notable military leaders all came to Saratoga.
To accommodate the large crowds the hotels grew in size and number and for a while both the United States and Grand Union hotels were listed as the largest in the world. To make the experience memorable for guests, only the best in food, music and entertainment was made available in Saratoga. Victor Herbert and John Phillip Sousa both were music directors at hotels in Saratoga during the summer. Shopping was a way to pass the time. There was a Tiffany’s that opened on the lower level of the Grand Union Hotel that in three summer months would outperform sales in the New York City store. Many guests were seen shopping during the day only to display their new finds at nightly social events. Many found carriage rides to Saratoga Lake and walks down Broadway a way to spend their summer days.
The city of Saratoga always tried to improve the look of the city and in 1827 it passed a law to reduce a person’s highway tax by 62 1⁄2 cents for each tree that was planted. Countless trees were planted and grew to produce very beautiful and highly shaded walkways for summer visitors. The telegraph was added in 1846 and gas lighting for the streets in 1853. Local laws regulated vendors from selling in the streets and in open spaces to preserve spaces used to stroll and enjoy the city. Washington Irving had written, “He had not seen a watering place on either side of the Atlantic where things were on a better footing.” The city was wonderful in all respects.
A little known event in the summer of Saratoga was to try to have your children meet and marry people of the same social station. Our city was a magnet for the rich and famous. Saratoga was a place to have young people meet and hopefully fall in love. It is written that Mrs. Lucy Wooster, while in Saratoga one summer, insisted that her daughter from Virginia visit her in Saratoga to find an acceptable man to escort her. A part of today’s High Rock Avenue was originally called Willow Walk, and was the best place for a chaperoned carriage ride at night for young people. Those chaperoned rides resulted in many proposals of marriage.
My good friend, Bob Baker, recalls his favorite marriage proposal... It was the summer of 1877 and the proposal involved a Western Union Clerk, Hamilton Twombly to Florence Vanderbilt, daughter of William H. Vanderbilt. When Twombly approached Vanderbilt to ask permission to marry his daughter, Twombly’s income was a mere $1,800 per year. William H. deferred his final approval to his wife who did grant their blessings and the couple was married in November of 1877 in NYC. This was probably not the yearly income that the Vanderbilts had in mind for their daughter, but soon Twombly became V.P. of Western Union at an annual salary of $15,000 per year and Florence inherited $10 million upon her father’s death.
In the 1800s they may have come for their health, they may have come to gamble, dance, shop and propose marriage. They may have come just to stroll and see the famous visitors of the day, but luckily, it’s still a wonderful destination to visit ...or live in! SS
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