This weekend my wife and I took a trip back to Saratoga Springs, New York. Unlike our first visit, we were less impressed by the town. Part of the problem was that the town had become flooded with people coming to bet on horse racing. Another problem was that we confronted New York’s decaying tourism industry more directly.

Tourism in the Saratoga region was built around geysers and mineral baths. Jon Sterngass explains that other industries were an extension of the original appeal of the waters (quote from Scott Martin’s review of Sterngass’ book First Resorts):

As trips to spas became fashionable in the early nineteenth century, the Springs’ promoters … engaged in a building spree that would transform Saratoga from virtual wilderness to a premier tourist destination. … While the promenading, flirting, and other amusements in which guests engaged seemed “to exist outside the market economy,” … visitors sought not a respite from urban life, but an “intensified version of it,” … a “sanitized rusticity without muck or smells… .”

Saratoga Springs commercialized, adding horseracing, casino gambling, and a thriving souvenir trade to the allure of its healthful mineral waters.

We encountered the two poles of Saratoga on this visit: the races and the spa.

We went to the races first. Most people lingered outside of the track proper. They poured over schedules with statistics as they calculated their bets. They drank and ate while talking about gambling. There were a few merchants around, peddling their wares. Large monitors kept gamblers informed of the changes in races and showed races as they occurred. The stands inside the track were half-filled (at best). We wondered why people were not interested in viewing the action more directly. The area outside the track had its appeal: people could shop and converse. But the action inside was neglected.

We stayed for only two races: they were spread too far apart to maintain our interests. Instead, we went over to the Saratoga Spa Park. Just as at the race track, the focus of the park was being neglected.

The park itself had been commissioned by Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1929. Feeling that the waters as a resource were being wasted, he wanted to build a spa in the European style. Water was pumped in from various sources for patrons to enjoy while they promenaded around an Italianate building with Roman columns.

From a distance the spa is impressive with its dark red bricks and long covered walkways. Up close, things are crumbling. The buildings are now state offices, no longer used as baths. No one seemed to take any interest in these edifices. Indeed, the golf course and the hotel within the park garnered more attention. I was especially taken by the sentiment on this placard promoting the spa as “real nature”: | Posted by Hello

Gambling and playing golf have displaced the pastimes which made Saratoga a popular destination. It is as if these things– which could happen anywhere–have started to define Saratoga above the things that made it unique. Posted by Hello

We left Saratoga to drive out into the Leatherstocking region in search of Howe’s Cavern, a small underground cave which has had a longstanding regional appeal. Not as grand as Carlsbad, it was a relief to get out of the humidity. Posted by Hello

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