SARATOGA SPRINGS - Did you know a freight train disaster at the Saratoga Railroad Station in 1940 resulted in nine injuries and two deaths? How about the mid-1970s incident that saw a sniper open fire on a west side elementary school playground that wounded two children? Or, that the Saratoga Race Course provided the scenery for a handful of Hollywood movies - from “Saratoga” in 1937 to “Seabiscuit” in 2003 - to say nothing of novelist Ian Fleming’s visit to the track to conduct research for his James Bond book, “Diamonds Are Forever.”
Saratoga’s history, from the well-documented to the obscure, can be unearthed in a handful of places in the city, most of which are readily open to the public and provide a wealth of resources, if one knows where to look.
“The city historian, the museum, and the library are three separate entities – we all work together - and there are others,” says city historian Mary Ann Fitzgerald, as she muscles open the heavy vault door inside her office at the Saratoga Springs Heritage Area Visitor Center. Here, Fitzgerald says, people need to know what they’re looking for before they come in, because of the overwhelming number of primary materials and other original documents.
Inside the vault, the shelves reveal handwritten council meeting minutes dating to the city’s incorporation in 1915, criminal dockets from 1876, fire disaster records, urban renewal papers, and countless other original documents, including a prized signature by Saratoga Springs founder Gideon Putnam that dates to 1810. The vault is perused largely by archivists and historians searching for original source material.
Across the street, the Saratoga Springs History Museum is being prepped for its upcoming exhibition - “Internationally Famous” – featuring Cris Alexander - a celebrity photographer and artist, and Shaun O’Brien, a dancer with the New York City Ballet. The couple moved to Saratoga Springs in the early ‘70s and were together for more than 60 years. Collectively, their lives trace a line through the art, dance and celebrity world of much of the 20th century.
In addition to its changing exhibitions and its permanent displays – original furniture and gaming equipment sit in the historic 19th century casino – the museum’s library houses research-friendly manuscripts, diaries, and business records of prominent local families like the Batchellors and the Walworths, as well as rarities documenting Caffè Lena, and the life of Frank Sullivan.
A third aspect of the museum’s offering is the George S. Bolster Collection. Culled from approximately 360,000 images, glass plates and negatives, the compilation depicts a long-gone era of city hotels and lake houses, public events, visiting celebrities, and time-captured scenes of the race course and private homes in their original splendor.
“People looking for pictures come to me,” says Bolster Collection Curator John Conners. “Some of them date back to the 1870s and every time I look at the pictures I still find something different, something I haven’t seen before.”
In 1928, the city’s borders cradled 14,000 year-round residents and housed 16 churches, 287 retail stores, five grade schools, one high school and two parochial schools. The house numbers and owners’ names can be found in the pages of the city directories - beginning in 1868 - at the Saratoga Room, located inside the Saratoga Springs Public Library. A few yards away, visitors can unearth the everyday lives of early 20th century residents in Sophie Goldstein’s oral narratives in the Saratoga County Jewish History Project.
The Saratoga Room also boasts a multi-media collective of Saratoga-related films and documentaries, publications, illustrated newspapers, cookbooks, street maps with numbered houses dating to the 1800s, and a popular collection of Saratoga cookbooks. Frank Sullivan’s personal library consisting of more than 100 books and his personal typewriter are here, as are a treasure-trove of high school yearbooks, a century old.
Discoveries To Be Made: Did You Know?
The New York Knickerbockers and Boston Celtics played an NBA exhibition game at Convention Hall in 1955.
Sylvia Plath found peace on earth during her residence at Yaddo in the winter of 1959.
The Olympic Torch passed through Saratoga Springs in 2001.
True Crime: The bullet-riddled body of the victim of a suspected “mob hit” was found on the steps of Saratoga Hospital in 1936; A grisly discovery of the dismembered body of a young woman was made at Saratoga Lake a decade later.
Sophie Tucker, Senor Wences, and “a breathtaking ensemble of lovely girls!” performed at The Piping Rock in 1947; 16-year-old Philip Seymour Hoffman studied acting at Skidmore in the 1980s; The band U2 performed at Saratoga Raceway – the current grounds of Saratoga Casino – in 1992, and Bob Dylan earned $50 for a two-night stand at Caffè Lena during his first visit to Saratoga Springs in 1961.
Fires: The city’s worst occurred in 1955 on Caroline Street and claimed the lives of eight people; The “Great Fire of 1957” destroyed a block of the downtown business district on Broadway, and eight years later the 5,000-seat Convention Hall was destroyed in a mammoth blaze.
Activism: In 1965, more than 600 Saratogians took part in a “Stand Up To Be Counted” silent March down Broadway in support of Civil Rights.
Some Saratoga History Resources – note some are by-appointment.
Crandall Public Library, Center for Folklife, History, & Cultural Programs, Glens Falls. Phone: 518-792-6508, Todd DeGarmo (Director) x237; Erika Wolfe Burke (Archivist) x238. Web: www.crandalllibrary.org.
Saratoga National Historical Park, 648 Route 32, Stillwater. Phone: 518-664-9821 ext. 224. E-mail: Contact Form at website - www.nps.gov/sara.
Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation, 112 Spring Street, Suite 203, Saratoga Springs. Phone: 518- 587-5030. www.saratogapreservation.org.
The Saratoga Room at the Saratoga Springs Public Library, 49 Henry St., Saratoga Springs. Phone: 518-584-7860, x255. E-mail: Contact form at website - https://www.sspl.org/research/local_history/collections/.
NYS Military Museum & Veterans Research Center, 61 Lake Ave., Saratoga Springs. Phone: 518-581-5100. Web: www.dmna.state.ny.us/historic/mil-hist.htm.