The tourist explosion combined the artistic explosion generated by people like Irving, Cooper, and Cole along with technological developments like the steamship all New York State developments…and peace with England helped too!
Saratoga helped create this tourist boom.
For a brief moment in the American Revolution, Saratoga became the largest “city” in what was about to become the United States of America. The huge armies and their followers that faced off against each other in the middle of nowhere, made this wilderness locale the site of perhaps the most important battle in the 18th century: the showdown between the Americans and the British that transformed the conflict in a global war when France decided to join.
It also meant that many people suddenly became aware that there were springs in the Saratoga area, mineral springs that naturally were believed to have healing powers. Mohawk Valley’s Sir William Johnson paid a healing visit to the springs in 1771 and gained a legendary cure of his war wounds. That brought tourists once there was peace in their time. The trickle in the late 18th century grew in the 19th century to places called spas, especially to Ballston where the annual meeting of APHNY will be held in 2014. Baths, bathhouses, and hotels meant building the tourist infrastructure on land that the infrastructure by steamship, coach, and rail would support. Such travels at first were restricted to the well-to-do who could afford the expense and had the leisure time, another new phenomena, to partake of such excursions. There were no weekend jaunts, they were like going to the Catskills for the summer more than a century later.
Over the years, there have been several IHARE Teacherhostels/ Historyhostels in Saratoga focusing on the turning point in the American Revolution. As it turns out, visiting the battleground wasn’t a one-way street. It seems that a cannon from the battle decided to see the country and ended up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. So here we may have the first instance of a upstate New Yorker retiring to the South to escape the winter. Notice of the sojourn piqued the interest of Natural Park Service ranger Joe Craig (listed as “Joseph” for some strange reason in the newspaper; we never called him “Joseph” in our programs!) And eventually the cannon was returned to its rightful place where once again tourists can gaze on this contributor to American independence.
During our programs, we often met in the Saratoga Springs visitor center for some talks about the war before going to the various historic sites related to the battle and taking a cruise on the canal.
Just outside the visitor center is a historic marker that we never paid much attention to since it did not directly relate to our purpose in being there. It recalled a former slave who had been kidnapped as a free person practically from that spot on Congress and Broadway. That kidnapping initiated a successful 12-year effort to free him leading to the publication of a book in 1853 entitled Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northrup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, From a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River, in Louisiana. Little did we know it would become a movie. Looks like the cannon is the only one with a north-south story to tell. Saratoga now celebrates the annual Solomon Northup Day Celebration of Freedom.
The layers of history didn’t cease with the revelation of the wisdom of Solomon. Following the end of Prohibition and originating with the efforts of Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt, New York build a huge still-standing spa as a state park. There also was a racecourse nearby where a horse named Seabiscuit sometimes ran. And he won too leading to his becoming not simply a leading horse but one which transcended the sport. He became the subject of a book and a movie too although unlike the Northrup book, he didn’t write it (and he didn’t dictate it either since he was not a talking horse!).
On a more intimate and less grandiose scale, Caffè Lena added another layer to Saratoga’s history. This legendary cafe was called “folk music heaven” in a recent article in the New York Times. The cafe which opened in 1960 was honored with a book Caffè Lena: Inside America’s Legendary Folk Music Coffeehouse. This daughter of American immigrants contributed to the American Dream by hosting the who’s who of what was becoming the folk music scene in the country, and besides the book, there also is a CD box set of the music played there.
So Saratoga is boffo at the box office and still going strong. This excavation of a single area was meant to illustrate the rich history of the region, to show how much more there is than simply a visit to the battlefield or the racetrack or a spa. Imagine putting all the pieces together for an immersion experience into the history of America through the lens of a single place. Just because the Governor has given up on the Path through History, doesn’t mean I have.
Readers interested in learning more can go to:
Richard Gasson, The Birth of American Tourism: New York, the Hudson valley, and American Culture, 1790-1830 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008).
Field Horne, “Saratoga Springs: Evolution of a Resort,” New York Archives 2:1 2002:21-23.
Ed Hotaling, “Seabiscuit’s Saratoga,” New York Archives 3:1 2003:18-21.