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Saratoga, a Tale of Two Cities

This material courtesy of Steve Toth

Midway between New York City and Montreal, historic Saratoga Springs offers attractions not to be found elsewhere: the site of the War of Independence, healing springs and spas, historic thoroughbred racetrack, and elegant 19th century mansions.

Saratoga offers Revolutionary War battlefields and monuments. It was here that the Americans defeated the British convincing France to help the Americans with soldiers, warships, and military supplies in their battle for independence. During the War, the British planned to split the thirteen colonies into two parts to help suppress the rebellion. General Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne marched his army south from newly acquired Canada while the main British army marched north from New York City to meet Burgoyne. Harassed by American frontiersmen, Burgoyne’s progress slowed and he ran short of food and supplies.

Burgoyne attacked the major American force at Freeman’s Farm in Saratoga. Nightfall and the bravery of Hessian mercenaries saved Burgoyne’s troops from destruction. About two weeks later, Burgoyne attacked again in the Second Battle of Freeman’s Farm. General Benedict Arnold’s leadership won this pivotal battle. Burgoyne surrendered to Major General Horatio Gates, newly appointed by the Continental Congress as commander of the Northern Department of the Continental Army. Gates took undeserved credit for this victory lobbying the Congress to appoint him as commander-in-chief replacing George Washington. Fortunately, Washington prevailed with the Congress.

This victory at Saratoga (renamed Schuylerville) marked the turning point in the American Revolution.

Prior to the Revolutionary War, the British Commissary of Indian Affairs, Sir William Johnson, who had a lodged bullet in his leg incurred in the French and Indian War (which resulted in Britain taking Canada from France), took the cure. To help cure his festering leg, Mohawk Indians carried him thirty miles to “High Rock Spring,” known to these Indians for its restorative powers. After this water worked on his leg, Johnson miraculously was able to walk part of the thirty miles to his mansion.

George Washington, Madame Jumel of Paris escorted by Aaron Burr, and Napoleon III tasted the High Rock Spring. This spring and other nearby highly carbonated spring waters led to the founding of Saratoga Springs.

Commercial interests located and exploited more than 110 springs each said to possess a distinctive benefit. Spas were developed and hotels built to accommodate the demand of the well to do. Spas became popular in Europe and in the U.S. in the late 19th century. Saratoga Springs was celebrated worldwide as the “Queen of the Spas” and held this esteemed position in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Vanderbilts, Astors, Belmonts and other wealthy and famous people came to Saratoga to gamble in the casinos, to parade in their horse carriages, to go to the thoroughbred races, and to be seen. They rented elegant suites in the lavish United States, Grand Union, and Gideon Putnam hotels that symbolized Saratoga’s Gilded Age.

Many socially elite families acquired mansions in Saratoga Springs. Superb examples of 19th century architectural wonders include French Renaissance, Second Empire, Greek Revival, Italianate, and Queen Anne, most of which are listed in the National Register of Historic places.

Thoroughbred racing began in the early 1860s in the oldest and still operating American racetrack. Whirlaway, Secretariat, and Man O’ War raced for the Travers Stakes or the Saratoga Cup. During the Saratoga heydays the elite drove along Broadway and Union Avenue in their fine carriages ending at the racetrack.

On a summer day in 1853, George Crum, a chef in Moon’s Lake House on Saratoga Lake, Saratoga Springs, NY, prepared an order of French-fried potatoes for a guest. The guest complained that the fries were too thick and soggy. Crum cut and fried a thinner batch, which was also rejected. To irritate the guest, Crum made and fried the thinnest batch he could slice and salted so heavily to make them inedible. To Crum’s surprise, the guest was so happy over the browned, paper-thin potatoes, that he ordered a second helping. Other guests asked for Crum’s chips, which became Saratoga Chips, a house specialty. Eventually, Herman Lay, a traveling salesman, helped market potato chips into a national brand.

Today Saratoga Springs offers access to the Revolutionary War battlegrounds and monuments, spas, springs, diverse architectural mansions, thoroughbred racing, nighttime harness racing, fresh water sports at Saratoga Lake, galleries, antique shops, and the gateway to the 6 million acre Adirondack Park. It has become an upscale bedroom community for the Tri-City region of Albany (capitol of New York State), Troy, and Schenectady.