Where vacations were invented

In writing the other day about the state of the American vacation, I didn’t have the space to give to Saratoga Springs its due.

As I note in the column, Saratoga Springs, NY, is one of the places where the American vacation was invented.

Saratoga Springs has been a tourist town for more than 200 years, one of those rare places that never was anything but a tourist town. It’s had its ups and downs, but it has adjusted to changes in the way Americans take time off, and today it’s doing very well.

First came the seriously ill, drawn by the town’s “healing” springs, carbonated and laden with sulfur, iron and other minerals. Philip Schuyler (Eliza and Angelica’s father, for you Hamilton fans) cut one of the first trails to the special place that had long been a tourist destination for Mohawks and other Native Americans. The first hotel in Saratoga Springs opened in 1802, and bigger, more magnificent hotels followed. Saratoga Springs became the place to see and be seen, a place to escape the heat of the city – in 1862 there were two trains a day from New York City, a 6-and-a-half hour trip. Before the Civil War, it was especially popular with Southern plantation owners. They brought along their slaves, of course, but also encountered a community of free blacks, including Solomon Northrup, author of “Twelve Years a Slave.”

Eventually private owners pumped so much mineral water out of Saratoga’s springs that they threatened to dry up. After efforts to regulate the pumping failed, New York state government bought up all the springs and created Saratoga State Park in the 1930s where even people of modest means could soak and sip.

For more than a century, Saratoga Springs was a playground for the top 5 percent, but then it wasn’t, and the town’s business leaders found other ways to draw less fancy visitors, mainly booze and gambling. It did a booming business during Prohibition, aided by its location, halfway between the distilleries of Montreal and the thirsty patrons of New York City. The town went through a wild period when mob bosses like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky owned clubs and casinos.

Then, when business took a nosedive in the late 20th century, Saratogians discovered resources as valuable as sparkling waters: Their town’s history, architecture and distinctive character. Victorian buildings were lovingly restored, parks spruced up, investments made in public art and cultural events. The Roosevelt Baths are still in operation, part of a full-service spa for vacationers who want to pamper their body.

Today, Saratoga Springs is thriving, says local historian Field Horne, and real estate values have gone through the roof. It’s a walkable city, with a lively nightlife. I can vouch for the Southern cooking at Hatties on Phila Street and the live jazz at 9 Maple Ave. It’s got culture, including a top-flight performing arts center and the National Museum of Dance. It’s got Thoroughbred racing and the Racing Hall of Fame. It’s surrounded by beautiful landscapes, historic places and refreshing lakes.

It’s still a playground for the 5 percent: You can tell from all the one-of-a-kind boutiques that the economy is pumped up by the well-off. But there are a few budget hotels and B&Bs, and it doesn’t cost anything to stroll through Congress Park or take in the mansions on North Broadway.

What makes Saratoga Springs work is its size. Its civic and business leaders have chosen sustainability over unbridled growth. This isn’t Vegas or Orlando, and it doesn’t want to be. That’s easy to keep a manageable scale if your community is on an island, like Key West or Martha’s Vineyard. Saratoga Springs has kept seems to have limited its growth on purpose.

Saratoga Springs is definitely worth a visit.