Visiting the Spas on the ‘The Fashionable Tour’

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Wealthy Americans were aware of the attractions of the European Grand Tour, which had been an institution amongst the European aristocracy for most of the 18th Century. Similar ventures in North America had to wait until the end of the Revolutionary War and the expansion of settlement. The advent of ‘The Fashionable Tour’ came with the settlement of western New York State in the 1820s.

Tourism before the Civil War tended to emulate the European variety in two aspects. First was the trek to places where mineral springs promised to restore vigor and health and the second was to see sublime natural features. Where Europe had Baden-Baden or Bath, America had Saratoga; where Europe had the Alps, America had Niagara Falls and the White Mountains.

The ‘tours’ differed between Europe and North America in many respects, given the number of cultures coexisting after a fashion in Western Europe, which did not occur in North America, except in possible visits to Indian villages or to French-speaking Quebec. In Europe, there were relatively short distances between major cities and attractions, while in North America there was an immense, lightly settled ‘wilderness’ to the west of the Atlantic coast. Finally, the presence of aristocratic ties between elites in Europe meant that those on the Grand Tour could go from palace to mansion to stately house rather than having to mix with many of the other locals. This could not be the case in America.

About 40 miles north of Albany NY, mineral springs were ‘discovered’ in 1767 by Sir William Johnson, the Royal Superintendent of Indian Affairs in North America. He was married according to Indian custom to Molly Brant (or Brandt), the sister of Joseph Brant, the famous Mohawk leader. This helped in building trust with the tribes and they showed him the springs.

After the Revolution, in 1783, American General Philip Schuyler had a road cut to the springs from land he owned nearby. Schuyler had had a country home built near Saratoga, but it had been burned by British troops in 1777, and was apparently rebuilt after the War. He had noted the existence of the springs and let people make use of them.

In 1787, Benajah Douglas, the father of future Illinois Senator, Stephen Douglas, came from Rhode Island and built a tavern near the Ballston spring, including a couple of rooms for guests. By 1794, Douglas’ business had grown to where he built two large, wooden frame hotels at what became known as Ballston Spa.

In 1789, Gideon Putnam, a native of Massachusetts, settled near Saratoga Springs. He was attracted by the extensive woodlands and noticed the possibilities for exploiting the springs’ tourist potential.

Putnam was a nephew of Gen. Rufus Putnam, who formed the Ohio Company in Connecticut to colonize southeastern Ohio. Gideon married a girl from Connecticut and moved to Vermont, where he tried his hand at milling grain but found it unrewarding. He eventually settled in Saratoga, looking for his chance. He found his opportunity in starting a lumber mill and the enterprise flourished.

Putnam then took some of his lumber, hired a carpenter and began to build a ‘great house’ or hotel for summer visitors. He named it the Grand Union Hotel. Putnam then purchased 130 acres of land near the springs and went into the real estate business. He died in a fall from a scaffold in 1812 while helping to re-roof his hotel. He was the first person to be buried in his new cemetery. In Saratoga Springs today; the Gideon Putnam Hotel bears his name.

Gradually, others built hotels in the area and the Saratoga area became a popular ‘watering hole’ for a good cross-section of the northeastern elite, gaining a reputation like similar places in Europe.

By 1825, the Erie Canal had been completed and the long overland portion of this ‘Grand Tour’ could be done in relative comfort in a canal boat. From Niagara, the trip through Lake Ontario and down the St. Lawrence to Montreal, Quebec City, Halifax and Boston was all by water. Every part of such a trip could be completed even today by ship and rail; the automobile being simply a refinement on these modes of transportation.

Tourism promoters were not slow to take advantage of the invention of the railway, a revolutionary new means of transport. In 1833, the Saratoga and Schenectady Railway was opened, claiming to be only the second completed railway in the country. Passengers from New York City could now board a steamer and go up the Hudson River to Albany, transfer to the Albany and Schenectady rail line, followed by a transfer to the Saratoga and Schenectady line and arrive at the springs in vastly more comfort and speed than ever before.

The Saratoga and Schenectady Railroad was the brainchild of Gideon Miner Davison. Born in Vermont of Connecticut parentage, Davison was attracted to Saratoga Springs toward the end of 1817 by some local businessmen who wanted to start a local newspaper. Davison began printing the Saratoga Sentinel. By 1822, he was in the book business, which presumably he found attractive because of his association with a couple of book publishing friends, the Harper brothers.

Davison published a guide, The Fashionable Tour or, a Trip to the Springs, Niagara, Quebeck and Boston, in the Summer of 1821. This pocket-guide went through 10 editions by 1840 and its popularity impelled others to produce competing versions. An indicator of Saratoga’s rising popularity was the arrival of John Clarke from New York City in 1822, where he had successfully operated a carbonated, or soda, water business. Clarke began bottling Saratoga spring water and marketing it as far as Europe.

The cost of travelling to Saratoga came within reach of less wealthy people. The way was open for people of many walks of life, to use whatever leisure time they could acquire to be tourists. Business was good enough that tourist attractions such as the White Mountains and, believe it or not, the coalfields of eastern Pennsylvania, could support rail and hotel facilities.

Hotels took in anyone who had the cash. At Saratoga, in the 1830s, the Congress Hotel competed with the United States Hotel for the better-off visitors, with the Union Hotel catering especially to those coming for real health purposes. Besides these, there were boardinghouses and smaller hotels catering to those of limited means. Theodore Dwight, another guidebook writer in this period, noted;

‘Congress Hall has generally enjoyed the highest favour among the most fashionable visitors at Saratoga….Union Hall is the resort of those who wish to participate more moderately in the amusements of the place.’

The daily drill was described by one Samuel Dawson, in 1835;

Breakfast at eight o’clock and then all retire to the drawing room and the Ladies and Gentlemen for an hour or so promenade, then a party either takes a ride out to a very beautiful lake called Saratoga…or go down to the nine-pin alley and play…They dine at two… and then take an evening (sic) walk or go to the circular railway and ride around for a while…Sup at six… and then at eight the dancing commences and continues until twelve or one…

So, a parvenu willing to spend money and who knew his manners could make an impression on this hotel society and develop connections that would hopefully pay off back home. No letters of introduction in the European style were necessary; only money, or the appearance of such.

Taking the ‘fashionable tour required more money and leisure time. When de Tocqueville, the famous commentator on America, went through New York State in 1831-2, he crossed Lake Erie to Detroit, visited Michigan, and then took a tourist cruise around the Lakes to Green Bay WI, before going to Montreal and then Boston.

It was all so civilized and fashionable.

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