Therapeutic history in what is now Saratoga County began as early as the 14th Century, when the Iroquois used the mineral springs for medicinal purposes, and grew after the initial settlement of Europeans in the seventeenth century, whose interest in mineral water therapies were the precursors to today’s health treatments, spas and other activities fostering wellness and recreation. The springs and the popularity of balneology (study of mineral water for therapeutics) are what put the area on the map. Local waters helped stimulate the growth of two towns, Saratoga Springs and Ballston Spa, which boasted grand hotels and tourism industries centered around spas and bathhouses. The area's other resources -- from lakes for regattas to driving roads and golf courses-- impacted many more. In the twentieth century, even as the spa tourism faded, the county has remained focused on wellness and many local recreational activities.
Wellness in Saratoga County
Balneology is the study of “the arts, sciences and cultures of natural mineral waters … for health, wellness and therapeutic benefits” (“Spreading awareness”). During the excavation of High Rock Spring in Saratoga Springs, evidence was found suggesting primitive aborigines had visited the spring thousands of years ago (Keyes 212). As early as the fourteenth century, the Iroquois visited High Rock Springs for its medicinal properties (Breyer 764). Alo, the Mohawk tribe of the Iroquois nation who lived in the Saratoga Springs region believed the local mineral springs contained medicinal properties, and that it was a give to man from the gods (Mineral Springs).
Sir William Johnson, a British soldier and war hero, was considered a friend of the Mohawk tribe, especially since he lived with the sister of a Mohawk chief (Sigerest 540). Because he was suffering from war injuries, tribal members carried hims to the Medicine Spring of the Great Spirit at Saratoga Springs, now High Rock Spring in 1767, although some have claimed that Johnson was first taken to the Old Iron Spring in Ballston Spa. After drinking the mineral waters, he made such a miraculous recovery that he was able to walk back home (Sigerist 540-41). He then wrote, “I have just returned from a visit to a most amazing Spring, which almost effected my cure; and I have sent for Dr. Stringer, of New York, to come up and analyze it” (Selin).
Hearing of these healing properties, several doctors studied the springs in the 18th century, including Dr. Samuel Mitchill, who wrote of certain “experiments” with Saratoga’s water that included having a turkey and small dog breath in fumes from the waters until they convulsed and went limp (Selin). But the first dissertation on the waters appears to have been written by Dr. Valentine Seaman and was published twice between 1793 – 1809. He did a quantitative analysis of the waters and discussed what kind of medical advantages it had (Selin). Other doctors added their own balneology observations about the waters in the 19th and 20th centuries (Selin).
While people at first came for the health benefits of the waters, many returned because of tourism. According to one scholar, the first instance of U.S. tourism to mineral springs occurred in the 1660s when Bostonians visited the Red Springs near Lynn for medical purposes (Weiss). This practice soon spread to other states, including Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and New York, which helped create an industry centered on spa visits (Weiss). During the early days of spa tourism, trips were made by the elites who could afford to travel for their health, as doctors recommended bathing and drinking the Saratoga waters for conditions such as kidney and liver diseases, cancer, and rheumatism (Selin).
Eventually, going to spas turned into a fashionable trend for travelers from all classes interested in getting out of cities and socializing with others. During the nineteenth century, many new spa locations emerged on the East Coast so people could visit and “take the waters.” But the most famous springs in American would become those located in Saratoga Springs, although Ballston Spa was more visited at first (Weiss 296). The popularity of Saratoga Springs increased when Gideon Putnam built a tavern and guesthouse in the town in 803. This was followed by larger hotels going up in town, including the Pavilion Hotel and the United States Hotel, which allowed for more people to stay. The town also took advantage of the railway system and steamboats on the Hudson River to allow more tourists to gain easy access to the area (Weiss 296). Finally, the opening of the racecourse in 1863 gave people another reason to come and socialize (Selin).
Thanks to the big boom in tourism, Saratoga Springs was described near the end of the nineteenth century as “the most noted inland watering-place in the United States and in some respects the most remarkable in the world” (Weiss). Famous visitors included Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother, Joseph, Andrew Jackson and James Fenimore Cooper (Selin).
But by the late 19th century, the mineral springs were running low because others used their carbonation for drinks and soda fountains. This, along with advances in medicine, caused Saratoga tourism to decline (“City of Saratoga Springs COVID-19 Resources”).
Fearful of losing the valuable mineral waters, the New York state government helped revive the area and helpe preserve the springs by taking ownership of land south of downtown Saratoga Spring in 1909 and making it a state reservation. In applying to the National Park Service for the status of an historic landmark, the city noted that Saratoga Spa was established by New York State “for the purpose of restoring, and forever preserving, the natural mineral springs,” and “promoting the resort to the said springs of the people of the state for health” (Breyer 765). The area became Saratoga Spla State Park in 1962 and a National Historic Landmark in 1987.
To meet the health goals for the springs, in 1912, the state hired Dr. Simon Baruch, who was well known for his research on therapeutic uses of water (Breyer 766). Specifically, Dr. Baruch was asked to study European spas, and, as a result of his research, he recommended that bathhouses be constructed at the Saratoga park. In his writings, he suggested that the springs’ waters could help with “heart and circulatory disorders, rheumatic conditions, gastro-intestinal ailments and convalescence," among other illnesses (Breyer 767).
Dr. Baruch passed away in 1921, but in 1929, Dr. Baruch’s son and New York financier, Bernard Baruch, continued his father's work by advocating for a spa facility and health resort that would equal those found in Europe. In response, New York funded a project to develop a resort and spa “for use by the public for balneological, therapeutic and other similar health purposes” (Breyer). Construction then began on two new bathhouses, including the Roosevelt Bathhouse, a new Hall of Springs, the Victoria Pool and Recreation Center with a golf course, and the Gideon Putnam Hotel. Franklin Roosevelt’s support of hydrotherapy at the Saratoga Springs’ bathhouses helped lead to a revival of the town’s popularity in the 1930s. In 1946, Saratoga’s bathhouses gave 200,000 baths a year (McNeil).
Unfortunately, with the arrival of the automobile, long vacations became less popular, and many of the bathhouses and grand hotels in Saratoga Springs closed. Around the same time period, interest in the springs as a medical cure waned and the polio epidemic ended. Modern pharmaceuticals and medical treatments replaced drinking mineral water as a cure, but much of the research done by Dr. Baruch on hydrotherapy remains an important component in aquatic rehabilitation today (Becker).
Today, the Roosevelt Bathhouse at the Gideon Putnam Resort is the only one of the original bathhouses still in use (McNeil). Most of the spa treatments offered in Saratoga Springs are similar to those offered in many towns and cities throughout America
Exercise in Saratoga County
The term “wellness” generally refers to practices that help maintain a person’s physical and mental health, like getting enough rest and exercise and eating nutritious meals. As a competitive swimmer, for me, wellness through exercise has been constantly being emphasized, especially when it comes to preparing for big competitions. Although the definition seems timeless, whether you live in Saratoga County or anywhere else in America, and whether you are a school-age child, college athlete, professional yoga instructor, or senior citizen marathon runner, the COVID pandemic challenged our abilities to achieve our goals of wellness. For the last year, gyms and indoor pools have often been closed. Sporting events have been canceled. Going grocery shopping has required putting on a mask and keeping socially distanced. For many, wellness meant finding new ways to stay healthy (and not feel crazy) during lockdowns and quarantines. In other words, the meaning of wellness in a shifted as the world changed, which is exactly what happened in Saratoga Springs and much of Saratoga County. During the 19th and early 20th Centuries, the Saratoga Springs built its reputation as a tourist destination on its spring waters. But as the popularity of its spring waters faded, the town and county had to focus on other wellness activities that were popular recreational pastimes for locals and visitors, like golfing and biking.
Saratoga County has a long history with wellness. As early as 1872, R.F. Dearborn wrote a book titled Saratoga and How to See It for tourists visiting the area for the waters. In addition to listing all the local springs, Dearborn also includes drives and walks in the area, along with other activities. For example, he notes that Saratoga Lake offers boating, sailing and fishing, the lake being "filled with the black or Oswego bass, pickerel, muscalonge and perch." He also observes that Lake George "is about thirty miles from Saratoga by carriage road," although the Adirondack Railway is "the plesantest and most convenient route."
Tourists also experienced other forms of recreation at Saratoga Lake. In the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, popular activites include rowing regattas and races, as well as relaxing at Ryall's Bathing Beach. During the winter, ice fishing was popular on the lake ("Story and Strategy"). Regattas like the Head of the Fish continue to be held at the lake and on Fish Creek thanks to the Saratoga Rowing Association and Skidmore.
The growth of the automobile industry allowed more visitors to reach other activities through the Saratoga region, as suggested by Taintor Guidebooks' Saratoga Drives and Excursions published in 1900. Visitors could more quickly reach the local battlefields and Adirondack range.
The sport of golf originated in Scotland during the 15th century, but did not become an official sport until 1744, when the Gentleman Golfers of Leith formed the first golf club and started yearly tournaments. Golf did not arrive in America until the 1880s and its popularity exploded during the 1920s. As a tourist destination, Springs was ahead of the curve because it opened the Saratoga Golf and Polo Club in 1896, although it only had nine holes and the MacGregor links in 1921. That was followed by the Saratoga Spa Golf Course in 1936, the Airway Meadows Golf Club in 1999, and the highly-praised Saratoga National Golf Club in 2001. One of the most notable events to take place at the Saratoga Spa Golf Course was the 1963 match between Arnold Palmer and Gary Player that celebrated the course’s reopening and raised money for construction of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Golf still remains a popular pastime, even during the pandemic, and technology allows courses now to schedule tee times and get reviewed on websites like golfpass.com.
Bicycles arrived in America around the 1880s and probably came to Saratoga Springs around the same time (“Bicycles – Liberation’). Although little appears to be known about the earliest cyclists in Saratoga County, photographs have been found of Ed Farrington, owner of the Billiard Parlor and Bike Shop in Saratoga Springs, which could probably be dated around the 1900s. Another photograph showing bicyclists at the Saratoga Springs Floral Fete has been dated to around 1900. Around 1935, tourists could also take rickshaw rides around town (“Historical photos”). But as technology progressed in the early 20th Century, people began to use bikes to race, and not just recreationally. Bike clothing became specialized, including shoes, glasses and shorts, and more recently, protective gear such as helmets and gloves have become a necessity.
In the 21st Century, bike sharing has become popular in the Saratoga region, with a five-year plan to expand its use through the FLEX and CDPHP Cycle! Mobility programs (CDTA). But the type of cycling that has really exploding is mountain (off-road) biking. Off-roading may have started with the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps, who carried gear over rough terrain in 1897 as they rode from Missoula to Yellowstone National Park and back. In Saratoga Springs, many mountain bike trails have been created and mapped. Examples include trails at Gurney Lake Mountain, Kalabus Perry Preserve, Luther Forest, and Moreau State Park.
Present Day Health and Wellness in Saratoga County
As discussed above, wellness has been important to Saratoga County for centuries, as seen by Sir William Johnson accompanying indigenous people to the mineral waters in the 18th Century. This focus on wellness and the springs continues today with Saratoga County’s dedicated wellness website called Healthy Saratoga. The mission of Healthy Saratoga is “to support activities and programs that will ensure Saratoga County is one of the healthiest places to live, work, and play.” Like the county’s Covid-19 website, Healthy Saratoga offers a tremendous amount of information connected to wellness, including updates on where Saratoga County ranks nationally in terms of fitness, obesity and mortality; information about Annual Health and Wellness Week, which involves organizations hosting free classes, workshops, and workouts; and the locations of parks, trails and other outdoor resources located in the county. It also lists initiatives and council members, as well as the activities fodr Leap of Kindness Day, which is a day dedicated to doing acts of kindness like donations and food contributions.
To experience history while engaging in physician activity, Saratoga town historian, Sean Kelleher, recommends, exploring the "landscape of Saratoga County." He observes, "There's so much history in our landscape." For example, you can walk along a canal path and see Old Champlain, the Erie canal, or mills within the commmunity (Kelleher interview at 00:16:04). Visitors can also watch reenactments at Saratoga's hsitorical battlefields, which Mr. Kelleher has participated in for decades.