In 1864, Travers’ prize horse was named Kentucky. As owner and supporter of the race track, he established a stakes race named after him, which, coincidently, was won by his prize horse. It is ironic that the first winner of a Saratoga’s greatest stakes race was named for a state that would rival it forever after for dominance in Thoroughbred horse racing.
Born to an upper middle class family in Baltimore, Travers attended a private secondary school in New York City. After a stint at West Point, he graduated from Columbia College. His first job was as a clerk in a factory in New Jersey. He then returned to Baltimore, where he joined a friend in a merchandising concern. While in Baltimore, he married Maria Louisa Johnson, the daughter of a United States Senator and one of the belles of the city. They would have nine children.
In 1853, when Travers was in his mid-thirties, he had lost all the money he had made from the merchandising concern. He moved to New York City where he went into banking and the stock market. Within a few years he had paid back all his creditors from his Baltimore venture. Although suffering some setbacks, the world of finance proved to be his calling; by the time he died in 1887 he was worth over $3,000,000.
During this time of conspicuous leisure, one of the ways the rich measured their success was by the number of clubs to which they belonged and, equally important, the clubs’ prestige. A popular financier, Travers belonged to over twenty social clubs. For several years he was the president of the New York Athletic Club and a member of the New York Racket Club, two of the most significant clubs of their time. In 1886, while Travers was the president of the New York Athletic Club, there was a rebellion among the members, and a rival slate of officers was put forward. The bizarre twist is that both slates had Travers named for president. The contest was between those aspiring to hold lesser offices. Travers was so popular that he received 685 out of 688 votes.
In his later years Travers became an avid yachtsman, owning a winning ship named Fanny. His love of sailing resulted in his owning a second summer place in Newport which had its own ballroom and hosted President Arthur.
Unfortunately, Travers had diabetes. His health failing in October of 1886, his doctors suggested that he go to Bermuda rather than face a winter in the northeast. While he was in Bermuda, The New York Times described Travers as “the pride of Wall Street, the joy of Newport, patron of athletics, priest of all story-tellers, rare good fellow and champion stutterer.” He died in Bermuda in March 1887. His widow, Maria Louise, died in 1893 after suffering the loss of two of her three sons in the intervening period.
After the Travers, the house at 601 Broadway was the home of Louis Janvrin, the manager of the United States Hotel. For fourteen years Janvrin, Gates, and Perry operated the most exclusive of the three great hotels in Saratoga. In 1891, while only 52, Janvrin suffered a disabling stroke. He died the next year. The Janvrin family stayed in the house for two years following Louis’ death.
The house was next occupied by James Pardue, who operated a successful china shop in what is now the Algonquin building (it was called the Pardue at the time.) Pardue made his fortune off the yearly seasonal guests and by skipping the middlemen and buying his merchandise directly from dealers in China and Japan.
The next owner, James Houghton, originally of Corinth, was a true Horatio Alger story. The oldest of seven children, Houghton was 13 when his father died. To save his mother money, he moved to his aunt’s farm. He would credit his good health and strong stature to his work on the farm as an adolescent. Because of his family situation, he did not enter high school until he was sixteen, graduating at twenty. Never attending college, he read for the law in Rochester. Moving to Saratoga County, he became a county judge and later was appointed by Teddy Roosevelt to the Supreme Court and still later to the Court of Appeals. In the winter of 1913, looking fit as ever, he went to Boston to have surgery in a hospital where his son practiced. He survived the surgery only to succumb to pneumonia.
Interesting side notes on Travers and his family:
- You can judge a man by the company he keeps; Travers was the executor for John Morrissey’s estate.
- Seven months after he died, Travers’ oldest son, John, was declared insane with no hope for recovery. Thirty seven, unmarried and worth over $318,000, John died the following February, less than a year after his father. Travers’ son Reverdy died in 1892 at the age of 29. Money may not cure all evils.
- Noted for his sense of humor, Travers’s quips were often quoted in the various newspapers. One time he was looking out his window and noticed a lawyer walking by. He turned to his friend saying, “Look there is ___ with his hands in his own pockets.”
- Having a serious speech impediment (he stuttered) Travers often picked on himself. After he moved to New York City he ran into an old acquaintance from Baltimore. His friend remarked, “William your stutter seems much worse since you moved.”
- Travers responded, “B-b-b-bigger c-c-c-city.”
- During World War I, Houghton’s daughter, Elizabeth Don, along with another young woman from Saratoga, purchased a Ford ambulance which they donated to the Red Cross to transport wounded soldiers. Before they were allowed to go to France to serve as the drivers they had to prove they could dismantle and reassemble the ambulance themselves – they passed.
Hollis Palmer’s books are available at Crafters’ Gallery and the Saratoga History Museum.