Skip to main content

Saratoga Springs, New York

June 2024
15min read


Photographs by ROBERT BENSON


GENE SMITH VISITS—and revisits—a place resonant with significance personal, local, and national, a place that tempered the Gilded Age’s ostentation with a boisterous egalitarianism, a place where King George’s hopes for an end to his colonial rebellion came to grief, a place where generations of Americans sought healing waters or instantaneous wealth, a place that has gone through bitter times yet still draws the attention of the world every August and offers superb natural beauty (along with an exuberant architectural legacy) the year round, a place very much aware that its present fortunes depend largely on the imaginative exploitation of its past

GEORGE WASHINGTON wanted to buy land for a summer place here. But then, he had good reason to think well of Saratoga.

Someone once said every man’s life is worth a book. I wrote mine in 1987. In its early pages I told of my 1948 Adirondack Mountains busboy employment. “The hotel was magnificent, a relic of the General Grant and Second Empire style of the last century fast going to seed, its doom written in the stars by the airplane and the Caribbean or European vacation. It was the sunset, the last breath, of upper-middle-class America with wardrobe trunks. The money was awful. I remember one man, literate, clubbish, a gentleman’s ‘C’ at Princeton in 1928, I am sure.” For six weeks I set and cleared the table for him and the daughter and wife. In knickers and cleats off the golf links he talked with me about the year’s big book, Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions . He said when he left he would take care of me. He took care of me all right. A firm handshake and he was gone. Then there was the Quarter Woman. At luncheon busboys used to shove the relish trays at guests. The Quarter Woman each day searched through her purse for a coin of that denomination, found one, and gingerly dropped it onto the tray. “Thank you, madam, thank you.”


But everything was worthwhile, I wrote, because on a direct line home for me and my pal Bob, whose destiny it was to abandon busboydom in favor of becoming a doctor, lay Saratoga Springs. “August at Saratoga, where the great and legendary hotels were still standing, with those endless verandas and columns and noble trees. All gone now, of course. August at Saratoga, where you could stand in the park where the saddling enclosure was and be ten feet away from the finest horses and the best jockeys in the land, in the world. We saw the brilliant silks and shining boots, the jocks spinning and slapping their whips, the trainers talking with handsome grey-haired owners in summer suits with elegantly cased field glasses negligently dangling. We saw Gallorette saddled, maybe the best filly of the decade, lightning. But so graceful, so lean, so sweetly feminine, that head so long and delicate; we saw her dance around when they put the bit in, she danced for us in that long-ago August under Saratoga’s trees. We blew away half of the money earned by The Quarter Woman’s stipends and unadded to when Mr. The Young Lions stiffed me. It didn’t matter.”

The place isn’t just horses, never was. Iroquois and Mohawks took note of the reputed healing power of shale- and limestone-trapped waters geysering from glacial-era springs, and as early as 1535 the French navigator-explorer Jacques Cartier was told of miraculous liquids. Charged waters still come up from under pavilions, open Ionic-columned temples, cupolas with golden urns and cherubs: Columbian Spring, Hayes Springs, Island Spouter, Hathorn, Peerless, Governor, others. Enthusiasts used to ascribe particular curative capabilities to each: One aided skin disorders, another inflammation of the eyes; a third alleviated nervous conditions; the next took care of heart problems. (What can I tell you; some seem to me slightly less horrid to the taste and nose than others.) George Washington was so taken with High Rock Spring’s output that he wanted to buy land for a summer residence.

But then Washington had good reason to think well of Saratoga. The fall of 1777 fight there between the British under “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne and the colonists under Horatio Gates has come to be recognized as one of the decisive battles of history, ranking with Marathon, Hastings, and Blenheim.

In the days that followed the battle and the eventual winning of American independence, it was the waters that drew people to Saratoga, modest tavern-lodging places rising to accommodate them, with wolves, panthers, bears, and rattlesnake dens nearby. Today the waters aren’t so much in the forefront of visitors’ minds, save for people headed to the Saratoga Spa State Park just south of the center of town, where great arched and colonnaded bathhouses offer bubbling immersion and imbibing opportunities. There is some irony available to those regarding these last traces of the largely vanished urge to take the waters. (But who can say? Perhaps alternative-medicine gurus will tomorrow embrace the concept.) The guiding spirit of the Hall of Springs was Dr. Simon Baruch, late surgeon of the Confederate Army, and the buildings were erected in 1935 under the direction of his son, the adviser to Presidents and financier Bernard M. Baruch. Father and son were Jews, and a twenty-minute walk from here anti-Semitism as America knew it for nearly a century was invented.


It was 1877. Saratoga had blossomed in a fantastic manner. Here was the Gilded Age at its height: flowing silk gowns, jewels, ostrich plumes, white tie and tails, great four-inhand coaches, parasols, flaring gaslight chandeliers, and floral fetes. Pennsylvania steel magnate mixed with Nevada silver (or Montana copper) king, Wall Street titan with Southern planter, at cotillions, balls, masques, here a railroad tycoon, there a great political figure, their daughters in attendance at what was termed the country’s biggest matrimonial mart. There were meals of God knows how many courses: partridge, terrapin, lobster, squab, goose, Maryland ham, Vermont turkey, saddle of lamb, rack of beef, ox tongue, calf’s tongue, oysters, green turtle soup. And there were the hotels at whose declining selves busboy Bob, the future doctor, and I gaped in that long-ago August. (We of course stayed at some bathroom-down-the-unraveling-carpet-hall rooming house.) The United States Hotel had 768 rooms and 65 suites of up to 7 bedrooms, ceilings that rose to twenty-six feet, thirty-foot-wide verandas equipped with deep wicker rocking chairs in which one sat and looked down upon such a parade of wealth and beauty and fashion thronging Broadway as was unknown to Vienna’s Prater, Berlin’s Unter der Linden, or Paris’s Champs-Élysées. The U-shaped building surrounded a three-acre garden and lawn with a bandstand set in leaf-shaded elegance. There was great-globed lighting for an evening stroll.

And the Grand Union up the street. Frescoed drawing rooms and parlors, thirty-five cooks and two hundred waiters, a corps of fishermen and a dozen hunters, piazzas the length of three and more present-day football fields, a fifty-four-piece orchestra under Victor Herbert presenting two concerts daily, house detectives looking the other way when certain guests brought in a “niece” or “cousin” while rigorously barring entrance to the common prostitute and, on June 14, 1877, to Mr. Joseph Seligman and family. Flags flying from high turrets, magnificent Lombard columns rising to upper-room balconies, a circular drive, carved black walnut grandeur, and Mr. Seligman being informed that he would not be accepted for occupancy. His floating of a Civil War loan, recorded the historian William E. Dodd, was of no less importance to Lincoln than was Meade’s repulse of Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg. President Grant had offered Seligman the Secretaryship of the Treasury. And now, solely on the basis of his religion, and with not the slightest pretense about it, he was turned away.


The incident attracted national attention, for nothing like it had ever happened before. William Cullen Bryant editorialized in the Evening Post that such an act was so opposed to the spirit of American institutions that it was a “scientific curiosity”; Henry Ward Beecher declared in a Plymouth Church sermon that it was unlikely ever to be repeated. But religious prejudice turned out to be a growth industry, and from the Grand Union it swiftly spread to a thousand other hotels and resorts within a decade. “Jewish patronage not solicited,” “Christian clientele,” and “Restricted” were so commonly used in advertisements as to arouse little comment until the 1950s.

Yet the prevailing tone of Saratoga was egalitarian. “A quite momentous spectacle, the democratization of elegance,” mused Henry James. Newport wasn’t like that. There everything was private, and the rich were in houses and not gathered regularly on a particular spot of the north piazza of the United States Hotel, where fellow guests could stare at Jay Gould, Willie K. Vanderbilt, J. P. Morgan, and on occasion John D. Rockefeller. You could join them in the daily drive to Saratoga Lake, when barouche, coupé, landaulet, and victoria took people out for a bit of air or to view a regatta. Neither Diamond Jim Brady in an outfit bearing 2,548 gems of the type creating his nickname nor his friend Lillian Russell would ever have been accepted at Newport, but today in central Saratoga there’s a little shopping plaza named for him and a restaurant named for her.

While by far the greater number of visitors stayed at the Congress Hall, or the Adelphi, or Windsor, or Worden, Clarendon, Kensington, United States, or Grand Union, a certain number of people put up homes, principally on North Broadway and Union Avenue. While the houses of Union are today largely doctors’ buildings, art galleries, and condos, those on North Broadway are privately owned, occupied only during the summer, and dazzlingly like what they must have been originally. The tourist office will give you a Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation illustrated map. You really must get one and go see, on foot or from your car, one after another of the lined-up elephantine mansions- French Renaissance, Second Empire, Queen Anne, Tudor Revival, Baroque, Gothic, Colonial Revival, Italianate, Italian Villa, with porticoes, cupolas, bays, pillared porches, mansard roofs, arches, lacy fretwork, and gingerbread—the Gilded Age served up hot. (Of the hotels, it can be said that they had their day, and then it was over. The Grand Union was the last of the greats, torn down in 1952, gone its two miles of corridors and twelve acres of carpeting. A woman bought and had shipped to her home everything in, and of, room 323.)

SARATOGA HAD BLOSSOMED fantastically. Here was the Gilded Age at its height: silk gowns, ostrich plumes, white tie and tails.

There is a house that for decades used to catch my eye when I drove to the track. Minarets, spires, turrets, towers, columned balconies, dormers, a dome—the “most spectacular (and conspicuous) house in the city,” remarks an architectural history. When I learned last summer that under the name of the Batcheller Mansion Inn it had been made a bed-and-breakfast, I called to ask shelter for the night. They had a room at a price, I ought to say, that would not be met by cashing a winning ticket on the longest long shot of the meeting. A good trifecta might cover it. But how regularly does one get to dwell, as once guests regularly did at Saratoga, in High Victorian Gothic of great glittering chandelier, massive carved door, marble mantelpiece, walnut mantelpiece, mahogany wainscoting, gilt mirror, soaring central hall, ample breakfast at a table set with impeccable china and silver on immaculate damask?

AUGUST AT SARATOGA, where you can stand ten feet away from the finest horses and best jockeys in the world.

Sitting on the covered porch—such are very common in the town; there is even a poster, “Saratoga Porches—I fell into conversation with a Southerner who told me he was up to see a filly of his run that afternoon. “She was short twice at six furlongs,” he drawled. “Now we’ve got six and a half, I think that’ll suit.”

“Really shooting this time, are you?”

“Believe she’ll be there.” I bet her, of course. She missed this much, despite my screaming. Closed like a shot. It was that damned number nine post position; she was wide around the turn, running on the outside of the perimeter.

Right across Union Avenue from the site of this setback to my finances, echoing a thousand similar failed transactions over the years, is the National Museum of Racing and Thoroughbred Hall of Fame. Here you can see a starting gate filled with full-sized replicas of horses and jockeys and hear a recording of the gates slamming open as the riders scream at their mounts, see saddles no larger than a good-sized steak that once adorned the backs of great horses, see boots with ballet-slipper-sized places for tiny hundred-pound-jockey feet, view hundreds of massively elaborate trophies, platters, loving cups, and urns, donated by the owners of winners of America’s greatest races. The Hall of Fame resembles nothing so much as a cathedral. Here are the pews facing a screen where racing films are shown. High above the walls are the relics of saints—the strikingly colored runners’ jackets of famous stables: Vanderbilt, Whitney, Greentree, Calumet Farm, the Queen of England. Set in the walls are chapels, side altars, where computer monitors in a moment call up great races and riders. You can study Secretariat’s Belmont Stakes, see again Eddie Arcaro drive toward a finish, see Whirlaway, Forego, Buckpasser, Angel Cordero Jr., Willie Shoemaker.

The museum has a replica of the jocks’ room, ancient paintings from colonial days showing horses of attribute unlikely and running style impossible, legs stretched out like the footing of a rocking chair, old badges, tickets, insignia, posters, statuettes, stopwatches. There are recordings of jockeys and trainers discussing their craft. The museum each morning conducts walking tours of the backstretch area of numerous barns whose residents peer out at you, with other occupants being walked round and round after track workouts. Or you can watch from the clubhouse while being served breakfast, in a tradition that dates back more than a century. In the old days people fresh from gaming—men, actually, for women, along with local residents, were forbidden to gamble—used to come in the evening clothes required at Canfield’s Casino, where each August more money crossed the tables than Monte Carlo knew in a year, for frogs’ legs, melon, and champagne. “Whenever a gentleman failed to survive the combination,” the present-day menu claims, “the headwaiter would simply put a screen around him.” Today you can replicate everything save the frogs’ lees and possibly the screen.

SARATOGA AWOKE AGAIN after the Northway opened and the go-go 1980s brought a tax-loss explosion in the horse business.

If you take the walking tour, you may note what resembles our image of the slave quarters of the Old South. Here resides the backstretch help, physically close to but a world apart from their charges worth one hundred thousand, a million, thirty million—the price the brilliant Cigar’s owner turned down from Japanese interests. These workers muck out, feed, water, bandage, rub down, walk on a lead rope, and in some cases act as exercise boys (and in recent years, girls). Some eighteen years ago a New York City kid, Richard Migliore, was among them. His father in his own youth had been a good ballplayer, offered a chance to try out for a spot in the Boston Red Sox minor-league chain. But the father’s Italian father talked about pie in the sky and said if the boy went, he need not come home again. So when Richard, thirteen, said he wanted to go to work to be a jock, his own father, remembering, gave his consent.

It was summer, and school was out. Richard came up to Saratoga. The mountains, the country, incredible. It was a different world. There was no hot water in the backstretch; if some was needed for treatment of a horse or for its warm mash, you heated with propane what you drew from a pump and stuck in a sack of corn for yourself and your pals to go with burgers bought at the little backstretch stand or what you got from the fruit truck coming around. Everybody always had a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter on hand. In the afternoon Richard the exercise boy-rubbermuck outer-hot walker went to the clubhouse, picked out someone dressed nicely who looked as if he had some money, and did touting a little more grounded in likelihood than that of the gents with the Green Card and Orange Card of guaranteed winners on Union Avenue. “I’d say I galloped this horse, or one of my friends did, and the horse is ready to win.” If in fact the horse did win, Richard made himself available, and maybe he’d be given twenty bucks.

Richard gave one man five straight winners over the course of a few days. The man remarked on a Saturday that he had to work the next day so he couldn’t be out to the track but that he wanted to blow his benefactor and his friends to a steak dinner at the Old Firehouse Restaurant on Broadway, meet him there. The kids went on their bikes to find the horseplayer in cassock and Roman collar. “Uh-oh! What’d we say in front of him?”

Migliore worked up to be a jockey whose mounts to date have won some eighty million dollars, 10 percent going to him. He proposed to the girl now his wife in front of Saratoga’s Lyrical Ballad bookstore, as quirkily musty, crowded, little, and no less reminiscent of one’s picture of Dickens’s London than its name. It’s as evocative of past days as the little Adelphi Hotel across Broadway, a mini-version of the vanished splendors and lost glories and departed era of the Grand Union and United States hotels, still hanging on and done up in high style, bringing to my mind what I imagine a really good bordello must have looked like in the days of Grover Cleveland. Migliore so loved this Saratoga of potted flowers hanging everywhere that he bought a house there and found winter equally entrancing; there’s a celebration where they don’t plow Broadway and everybody dresses in Victorian attire and goes about in sleighs. The horseplayer priest married the Migliores and later christened their three sons.

Migliore came to Saratoga at the right time. Had he arrived a decade or two earlier he would have biked around a place that for many years had been going downhill. Time had bypassed the Queen of the Spas. Auto routes there were awful; you crawled north through little towns along Route 9. (The days of the railroads and the Saratoga trunk of ironbound, round-topped, open-mouthed immensity waiting to be filled with great clothing for the summer campaign—all that was déclassé by the end of the First World War.) And the gambling houses were finished, driven out by reformers. This town had been made by faro games and roulette and high-stakes poker. The former American heavyweight champion under the London Prize Ring Rules, John Morrissey, also rather improbably a U.S. congressman, had put into action the first of a dozen gambling places. Then, a month after Gettysburg and Vicksburg, he opened the racetrack. Racing was legal, of course, but while casino gambling was not, everything was on a high plane and continued so under the reign of Richard Canfield, Morrissey’s successor as Prince of the Gamblers. The authorities looked the other way, only occasionally erupting into seizures of righteousness that called for temporary closure of the leading casino, which stands today in Congress Park among the winding walkways and little lake and statuary and fountains of a place designed in part by the creators of New York’s Central Park.

Then the Prohibition-era gangsters of quite a different tone took over, and Saratoga in summer became the setting for flashy types who didn’t know which fork to use. Prostitutes thronged Broadway. World War II came, and the track was shut down for a couple of years; the railroad cars that transported the horses were needed for other purposes. After the war vacationers sought other destinations.

The final smash was Sen. Estes Kefauver’s 1950s hearings on organized crime, which identified gambling as the prime source of the Mob’s income. The gambling places closed permanently, those in town and those out at Saratoga Lake, where Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante, and Sophie Tucker had performed for café society people who looked and acted like George Raft. That was the end of that run. Saratoga turned shabby. The United States Hotel was razed in 1946; the Grand Union, which didn’t even serve meals anymore, six years later. The city historian Martha Stonequist remembers her father remarking soon after that you could buy a North Broadway mansion, with all the furnishings, for six thousand dollars. Where the great hotels had once stood, there were now used-furniture outlets, places where you could rent a rug cleaner for a day, discount houses, and —sticking in the craw of old Saratogians—a Grand Union supermarket on the former site of the Grand Union Hotel. The parking lot was filled with big sinkholes formed by the decomposing roots of the ruthlessly cut-down great trees. There was even talk of closing the track.

The town was seedy and petty, any trappings were of tinsel, and the successors of the carriage trade that had once gone to see the ponies run came out now in shorts and halter tops. All Saratoga had going was Skidmore College —its women were housed and taught in former private residences along Union Avenue—and Yaddo, the retreat for artists, writers, and composers set up by a philanthropic couple in an 1893 mansion. The likes of Saul Bellow, Leonard Bernstein, John Cheever, Aaron Copland, and Carson McCullers labored there, food and lodging free. The gardens were open to the public, and still are.

Then slumbering Saratoga awoke. The Adirondacks Northway was opened in 1965, allowing cars to shoot to the outskirts of town at sixty-five miles an hour. Then came the go-go 1980s, with such a tax-loss explosion in the horse business that yearlings that never had a saddle on their backs went for unheard-of prices at the annual Fasig-Tipton auctions right outside the track—one for $4.6 million, and it turned out he couldn’t run, for God’s sake. The bubble broke after the stock market drop of 1987. Not so long after that, if you walked around the stable area where the wares were housed and you looked interested, you might have been asked by an eager seller if you’d like to inspect his product. Maybe you could have picked up another Man o’ War. He went for five thousand dollars here in 1918.

The final reason that Saratoga today is so reminiscent of what our great-great-grandparents saw, or some of them at any rate, is the preservation movement. For years Victoriana was out and plastic in; and so the Adelphi sat unoccupied from 1970 to 1979, the furniture gathering dust. Then people got involved with the past, and places were fixed up, and Richard Migliore and others fell in love with Saratoga. It is awfully pretty these days, very clean, lots of places to eat. The Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) presents events of all types in its huge amphitheater. The New York City Ballet is a resident company during the summer. The Newport Jazz Festival-Saratoga and the Saratoga Chamber Music Festival take place. If you want, bring a blanket and sit on the lawn outside the no-walls building. Nearby is the National Museum of Dance and summer schools for orchestral studies, whose classes you may observe. Recent performers at SPAC include Itzhak Perlman, Michael Bolton, k. d. lang, the Beaux Arts Trio, Hootie & the Blowfish, Frederica von Stade, and Crosby, Stills & Nash with Chicago.

I close as I began, on a personal note. I had a pal, Gerry. We went back to the first day of high school, when I borrowed a pen from him. In time I moved to upstate New York, and in time Gerry bought a little hideaway cabin in the area. We used to go to the track a lot. Gerry died. Cancer. Not long after, I was up at the track with another friend, Jan. There was a race for very young, beginning horses. We debated the merits of two entries. We couldn’t decide which to bet. “I wonder if I ought to ask Gerry,” I said, looking skyward. Jan said it was a bad idea. We could not be sure, he pointed out, about concepts of humor in the afterlife. “Maybe for laughs the son of a bitch’ll give you the wrong horse,” Jan said. So we went off one of our choices, which of course won: Easy Goer, one of the top horses of the last couple of decades.

It was impossible that Gerry would not be paying close attention to August occurrences at the Spa, as sportswriters label Saratoga’s track. So it will be when, not too long hence, I join him—assuming all goes well. If you go there, maybe I’ll be seeing you.


Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.