Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Saratoga Gilded Age--Spas and Gambling

You might think that health and gambling weren't necessarily compatible ingredients for profitable success but in the Gilded Age, health and speculation were very much on the mind of the population. As the industrial age moved the populace from merely sustaining life to having choices in what one ate and drank, an interest in a healthy lifestyle took root, particularly amongst those with money to make those choices. And with the advent of the stock exchange and the rise in capital speculation came wide spread interest in gambling, again by those with money to entertain such pursuits. Saratoga offered both to its patrons and they flocked to it. While it probably wasn't solely demarcated along gender lines, health did seem on the minds of the ladies while gambling was the preferred leisure of the male population. Saratoga offered something for them both.

With several mineral springs, visitors to Saratoga Springs had their favorites. For instance the Old Red Spring, which today is located near commercial enterprises on a busy street, has an abundance of calcium bicarbonate and a great deal of iron and was known as the Beauty Spring because it helped with anemia (restoring a glow to the skin) and was thought an effective treatment for many skin diseases as calcium was used to treat skin lesions in days gone by. A note to those who take a gulp--beware--it tastes like its ingredients! Indeed, much of the various springs offer water that is metallic and alkaline in taste.

Congress Spring, located on Broadway in Congress Park is an exception to the taste warning as is the State Seal Spring located in Saratoga Spa State Park. Congress Spring supplied the original Saratoga Spring Water, bottled and sold for it's mineral properties and taste.

Many other springs besides the State Seal Spring are located in Saratoga Spa State Park--a short buggy ride/car ride from the center of Broadway. I've listed them along with their purported properties.

Geyser Spring--works as an antacid, aids in digestion

Hayes Spring--used as a treatment of liver, gall bladder and digestive tract disorders. The high salt content in this spring produces a laxative effect!

Orenda Spring--high potassium iodide and possesses laxative properties!

Beware of the Polaris Spring which perches handily beside the roadway with no signage (none of the springs in the park have very much in the way of signs which makes finding them a bit of an adventure.) It has high radioactive content, yet sits ready to be tasted. I made the mistake of taking a gulp in my quest to have an authentic taste experience of all the springs not realizing it was the Polaris Spring until too late. So far, no ill effects.

The park also contains the Roosevelt Bath Houses (built in the 1930s and restored) where you can take a mineral bath, duplicating the bath houses that were popular in the park back in the day.

Pictures of the various springs are below.

A trip back to Congress State Park and the Congress spring and you'll find Canfield Hall, the original building that was opened in 1870 as a gambling facility (despite the fact that gambling was never legal in the city) by John Morrissey. Known quaintly as The Clubhouse, women were allowed in the saloon but not in the gambling halls--though there are many stories about some determined efforts by a few women to gain entry. Nor did John allow permanent residents of the city to gamble in his casino for fear that a losing resident would seek revenge via enforcement of the town ordinances. It must have worked because the club thrived for a long time, eventually being sold to Richard Canfield in 1894. It is now Saratoga's museum with part of it still set up as a gambling hall (pictures below) People bet and lost fortunes in The Clubhouse where Wall Street elites such as Morgans and Vanderbilts mingled with other bankers, railroad men, congressmen and cattle barons. Along with the famous race track, the casino was a major attraction to those who liked to speculate with their money.

Coming next will be the great houses of Saratoga Springs and that will be the last about my vacation to the Queen of the Spas.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Taste of Saratoga's Gilded Age--Hotels

This summer I went to Saratoga Springs to finish up a little research on my western historical novel about a Texan who comes to Saratoga in hopes of bringing back a cultured wife and gets a great deal more than he bargains for.

Saratoga Springs was the Queen of the Spa resorts with the added benefits of horse racing and a first rate casino as well as proximity to New York City from which it drew a large part of its monied clientele, attracting the likes of Vanderbilts, Fisks, Goulds and Asters. For a time, it boasted the largest hotels in the world such as the Grand Union Hotel where congressman, senators and bankers gathered, The United States Hotel where the likes of Vanderbilts, Goulds and Rockfellers held court on the piazza and Congress Hall which hosted the Asters and other old New York scions.

The scope of these hotels was monumental. The Grand Union was updated several times but in 1875, when my novel takes place, it claimed a ballroom that was 85 x 60 feet with 27 foot high celings from which hung three large crystal chandeliers. Covering seven acres right on Broadway, it had over 824 rooms available, some of them cottages which rented for $125 per day. It boasted two miles of corridors, twelve acres of carpet and an acre of marble. The Grand Union dining room was capable of handling up to 1400 guests at a sitting " with 35 coooks, 200 waiters, 12 carvers dispensing 1200 quarts of milk, 1500 pounds of beef, 80 chickens and 250 quarts of strawberries" or so the guide book of the day related. (The Grand Union Hotel by Beatrice Sweeny, City Historian Saratoga Springs, New York).

A block down Broadway, The United States Hotel was almost as grand encompassing a three-acre park within its boundaries and 768 guest rooms and cottage suites all equipped with marble washstands and cold running water and some of the suites also offered a private bath. It also had a large ballroom and spacious dining room, all superbly appointed. Congress Hall was on a slightly smaller scale but all three lined the main street with large piazza's overlooking Broadway. Seen in one long sweep the hotels made quite an architectural display.

Added to this in 1877 was the Adelphi Hotel, squeezed in between the Grand Union and the United States. The Adelphi's piazza also overlooked the street and added to the unified architecture of these great hotels. The Adelphi only had a little more than 150 rooms but it entertained some of Saratoga's elite as well, including John Morrissey, the colorful Tammany Hall politician who helped bring racing and gambling to The Springs. He died at the Adelphi in 1878 with citizens keeping vigil outside its doors.

The Adelphi's smaller stature is what helped save it from the fate of it's bigger sister hotels. As modern conveniences such as elevators, electrical wiring, indoor plumbing, central heating, phones, etc. were required by vacationers, updating such mammoth palaces became financially prohibitive. With travel made easier, more options opened up. By the 1920's these grande dames were shadows of their former self. By the forties they were in substantial decline. The United States went up in smoke during that decade and the wrecking ball signaled the demise of the Grand Union in 1953.

The Adelphi, however, managed to hang in there and in 1977 the current owners purchased it and started to restore it to it's former glory. Today, you can get a taste of the grandeur of Saratoga's Gilded Age with a stay at the Adelphi where all modern conveniences await you as you step back in time. We stayed at the Adelphi during our visit in a beautifully appointed Queen suite and savored every wonderful minute of it. Below are pictures of the hotel so you too can step back in time.

More on Saratoga Springs and it's unique history in the next blog.