Saratoga Springs has a tremendous history laced with many interesting stories that have woven a tapestry of legends and lore about the city. As a boy my grandparents always enjoyed being the story tellers of Saratoga history and entertained me with many stories of old Saratoga that today are almost forgotten. The majority of my articles have been focused on one topic or location. This is a new approach with a variety of short stories from Saratoga’s historic past. Here are just a few of those stories.
CAVES OF HIGH ROCK
My memory makes me think the most interesting and most demanded story by me to be told, was about the Caves of High Rock. A short walk from our house was High Rock Spring and the mere thought that the brave warriors of the Iroquois Nation walked those grounds made me wonder about the adventure of the times. I was told that members of the Mohawk tribe came to Saratoga every summer from their “castles” on the Mohawk River. They planted crops, fished in Saratoga Lake and Fish Creek as well as prepared these foods for transport back to their longhouses to feed the tribe during the long winters. The story that I loved to hear was about the caves that were found near the High Rock Spring and were rumored to connect with an underground system of caves that took the Mohawk to the area of Glen Mitchell that today are the grounds of the Maple Avenue Middle School.
The opening to that cave has long been gone from our view. In the 1950s the opening was too inviting for people who wanted to explore these famed caves and the city put a series of steel bars over the opening and eventually filled the entry so there would be no chance for personal harm to those wanting to enter the site.
As a young boy that was such an interesting story and I always wondered if in fact the cave system was real. As a young teacher in the Saratoga City School District, I was asked to set up a system of nature trails on the site of the Maple Avenue Middle school prior to construction of the buildings. As I mapped and planned for those trails, I continued to wonder about the cave system. One day will working on the site I found another opening in the rocky ground and noticed water running from it. Was this part of the cave system? Now retired from that long teaching career, I continue to wonder, is this fact or fiction?
When speaking of stories of the High Rock Spring it’s difficult to forget that we believe the first European to visit the High Rock was Sir William Johnson who came during the summer of 1771 with the Mohawk. Sir William was the Agent for Indian Affairs representing the British Government in North America and lived among the Mohawk in the area known today as Johnstown. Sir William’s success in this position was grounded in his communication with the tribe as well as being accepted by the tribe as a “brother.” His close relationship with Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant was further enhanced when Johnson married the chief’s sister Molly.
The story of Chief Brant and Johnson that always interested me the most was the “Dream Story.” The story tells that one morning Chief Joseph Brant told Sir William that he had a dream the night before and had dreamed that he was given a beautiful red wool coat with shiny brass buttons. As the chief described the coat Sir William knew he would need to present the chief with one of his officer’s coats that matched the description. The coat was given, and Brant was very happy. One morning about a week later the chief awoke to tell Sir William that he had once again had another dream. In this dream he was given a very beautiful highly polished tomahawk. He described the way it shone in the sunlight and how wonderful it was to behold. Sir William immediately spoke up and said, “It shall be done.” A few moments later Sir William informed the chief that he also had a dream last night. Sir William told the chief in the dream he saw a piece of property that was five miles square of beautiful land that would be his farm. The chief bowed his head and very reluctantly said while shaking his head, “It shall be done.” He then looked up and said to Sir William, “From this day forward neither of us will dream ever again.”
Saratoga Springs has always had a great sense of patriotism on our nation’s birthday. In modern times we have had wonderful community-based celebrations that usually include fireworks displays in the city, Saratoga Lake, and Congress Park. In our early years the celebration was somewhat different. In the 1830s, John Clarke who was the first to commercially bottle the mineral springs for widespread distribution, had a novel way to celebrate. Clarke purchased much of the land that today makes up Congress Park and built a big house on Circular Street. At the top of the hill in Congress Park, near Circular Street and Union Avenue, Clarke displayed a cannon. He used that cannon on the top of the hill during the 1830s to fire a powder charge every dawn on the 4th of July to announce to residents that the “birthday” celebration was beginning. In a more solemn way, for many years the village arranged for the public reading of the Declaration of Independence by a descendant of a Revolutionary soldier. This process was started in 1830 when Judge William Warren, son of Captain John Warren, read the Declaration for the first time. By the 1840s the trend was for residents to spend much of the day on Saratoga Lake. On July 4th, 1864, a firecracker thrown too close to an open window started a fire on Broadway that burned down 14 buildings.
On a happier note, July 4th, 1865, celebrated the end of the American Civil War and the dedication of the new Leland Opera House at the rear of the Grand Union Hotel. The dignitary that dedicated the opera house was General Ulysses Grant, the hero of the Union Army.
LIGHT THE NIGHT
Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb in 1879. In August of that year Edison had the light installed in the courtyard of the Grand Union Hotel for guests to witness this marvelous invention. The lamp was placed over the courtyard dance floor and when the orchestra would take a break the light was lowered closer to ground level for inspection by the interested crowds. Why Saratoga for this exhibition? It demonstrates that Saratoga was the number one summer destination in America for the rich and famous. This exhibition would raise awareness of this invention among possible investors who might help to fund the company that would produce this light for public distribution, later to be known as General Electric.
During the majority of the 1800s the big meal of the day in the hotels was around 2:00 PM. This pattern was followed until the widespread use of electricity allowed easier meal preparation in the evening. After these very lavish meals in the middle of the day, many people took strolls or carriage rides to let their food digest.
Eliza Jumel was a very successful businesswoman who owned a house on Circular Street and was always immersed in the summer social scene of the day. In the 1840s Jumel was a regular member of the carriage parade each afternoon with her four black horses pulling a beautiful gold colored carriage to Saratoga Lake. In the summer of 1849, she had asked her coachman to maneuver her carriage to the front of the parade each day. On one day she took her position at the front of the parade and led off the parade down Broadway to Lake Avenue on route to the lake. As Eliza waved to visitors on the sides of the street, she noticed that they began to laugh. After a few minutes of this continued crowd reaction, she turned around to see a former slave named Thomas Camel dressed in a dress and hat with a parasol, riding in a small cart pulled by a donkey. Thomas was mimicking Jumel by waiving to the crowd and blowing kisses. This was so embarrassing to Jumel that the next day she lined up in the front of the parade and before starting, displayed two loaded pistols to the parade participants. She smiled as she displayed the pistol as if to say, “Are we ready?” The social scene was a tough arena at Saratoga, but Eliza Jumel handled her time in it very well.
These are but a few of the legends and lore of our great city. History is sometimes thought to be only dates and facts for memorization. I like to mix those items with legend and lore and always remember they are still part of the fabric of the city’s history but sometimes we are not completely sure if they are fact or fiction. Enjoy them Saratoga!