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Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:03

Worth the Visit: Visitor Center, Volunteers Keep Tourists Informed

By | Sports

SARATOGA SPRINGS – During the hot summer months leading into the Thoroughbred racing season, Saratoga Springs welcomes thousands of tourists each and every day. Located along Broadway at the intersection of Congress Street, the Saratoga Springs Heritage Area Visitor Center is the place where many people experiencing Saratoga for the first time start their trip - whether they’re fans of horses, history or even mineral water.

“Whether it is a visitor, someone from a tour group, someone passing through on their way to another destination or some of the kids walking home from the high school, this building is really quite a hub of service and activity for everyone,” said Johnnie Roberts, the center’s coordinator. “We’re here to serve the community.”

The center is more than just a place to pick up brochures and pamphlets about the local sights and events (though there is certainly no shortage of them), and offers several small exhibits looking at the history of the city’s transportation, government, recreation and even fashion. Pictures of contemporary artists performing at Saratoga Performing Arts Center line the hallway, featuring artists such as Bruce Springsteen and Art Garfunkel. A perennial garden maintained by the Heritage Area Garden Club surrounds the back patio all year round.

According to Roberts, what makes the center truly special is the involvement of numerous volunteers from all over Saratoga County. She estimates about 40 people give their time to educate and promote the city’s history, culture and resources.

“All of the people who greet you and assist you when you walk in the door are volunteers, so we are really heavily indebted to the public at large,” said Roberts. “Some of our volunteers even travel, not all of them are from Saratoga. Some come as far as Rexford, Clifton Park, Mechanicville and Gloversville.”

Along with history, you can find out what’s yet to come for Saratoga Springs, whether it’s their on-going summer concert series in Congress Park or posters promoting the 150th anniversary of Thoroughbred racing in Saratoga in 2013.

“People come here and they could be on their way to or from anywhere. We keep information about all kinds of different places located all around the state,” said Roberts. “Usually what happens by being so helpful and service-oriented, we find that people sometimes decide to stay here in the city.”

To look around at the building’s interior and exterior decorum allows anyone hoping to learn more about the city’s history a brief summary of some of its most significant events. The front of the building features four large murals above the front door, depicting scenes ranging from a pivotal moment in the Revolutionary War when British General John Burgoyne’s surrendered to American General Horatio Gates following the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, or when the native Mohawks brought Sir William Johnson to High Rock Spring, making him the first white man to set foot there.

The building was constructed in 1915, and was originally used as a trolley station by the Hudson Valley Railway Company. The ticket counter along with two long, wooden benches remain in the building to serve as a functional reminder of its past. In 1941, the building would convert from a trolley hub and transform into a hub of hydration after New York State assumed control of the building and began operating a water drinking hall.

“Locals often call this the old Drink Hall, because when the trolleys stopped running, the state took over the building and operated a state drink hall where everyone could come and drink many of the bottled waters,” said Roberts. “People would literally come here, buy bottled water and drink it here.”

The drink hall would close in 1965, but a large electric icebox and murals depicting the springs still remain on display at the center. From there, the building would be used for different local and federal agencies.

“During the mid-sixties, the city took over the building and it was used as office space, but also the city’s youth commission operated out of here. I remember going to junior high dances that were held out back; it was very fun,” said Roberts with a laugh.

The building was eventually named to National Register of Historic Places as well as being designated a city landmark. The Heritage Area Visitor Center would officially open its doors in 1987 and has offered tourists the information they’ve come looking for ever since.

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