Saratoga Springs has been famous for a long time. A really long time. Before there was horse racing, before the casinos — before the Revolutionary War, even — Saratoga was already well known for the restorative mineral water that bubbles up from the underground limestone.
The Native Americans thought the spring water had magical healing powers, and by the mid-19th century, people came from around the globe to “take the waters.” It’s called Saratoga Springs for a reason.
And while you really should sample a sip from the many spring taps that dot the city just to say you did, you should also acquaint yourself with some of the history that infuses this small gem of a city with such charm.
Take 1777, for example. After a dismal start to the War for Independence, the struggling Colonial army earned its first major victory, defeating Gen. John Burgoyne’s formidable British Army during the two decisive Battles of Saratoga that fall.
Historians call it the turning point in the war, and for anyone interested in American history, the battlefield at Saratoga National Historical Park, 11 miles southwest of downtown, is a must-see.
A sleepy village following the war, its fortunes turned when the Saratoga Race Course opened for business during Abe Lincoln’s presidency. It is arguably the most successful horse-racing venue in America. The Travers Stakes, the oldest major Thoroughbred race in the country, was first held in 1864, and where other tracks are cutting back or going out of business, Saratoga is going strong: in fact, this year’s season was lengthened by one week, starting a week earlier than usual.
The races, and patrons with names like Vanderbilt and Whitney, pushed Saratoga — which was already a destination for the wealthy — into a new era, with spas, more grand Victorian hotels, and casinos that would put Las Vegas to shame. In the 1950s, though, the state cracked down on racketeering, many of the hotels were torn down, and Saratoga was in danger of becoming a ghost town.
Its renaissance began in the 1960s, when I-87 — the Northway — made access easier and town boosters built the Saratoga Performing Arts Center as a summer home for the Philadelphia Orchestra, New York City Ballet, and every genre of popular artist from Harry Belafonte to the Grateful Dead. The Saratoga Spa State Park, a National Historic Landmark, was spruced up, including the Roosevelt Baths & Spa. Step into the Roosevelt and admire its grand lobby, bedecked with soaring columns, tile flooring, floor-to-ceiling windows, and a private, attendant-drawn, 97-to-100-degree, naturally carbonated bath, and slip into another time.
Saratoga has flourished ever since, adding more museums — the National Museum of Dance; the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame; the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, and the Saratoga Springs History Museum — along with restaurants, bars, and, along Broadway, one of the best stretches of people-watching in the entire Hudson Valley.
For hundreds of years, Saratoga Springs truly has been, as the old marketing campaign put it, the August place to be.
— David Levine