Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Saving the Springs of Saratoga

"The tranquil woods that surround you now once resembled an industrial park. The springs were exploited for their carbonic gas during the late 1800's and early 1900's...the amount of water being pumped from the ground eventually took its toll on the quality and flow of the mineral springs of Saratoga, and they began to run dry. A local Committee of Concerned Citizens successfully lobbied the state legislature for the preservation of the Springs, resulting in the Anti-Pumping Act of 1908...The gas companies were shut down and many of the wells were capped. It took many years for the remaining springs to regain their flow." – From an interpretive marker in Saratoga Spa State Park, New York

As I have become more interested in the history of Florida's springs, I've been particularly fascinated with the guilded age practice of "taking the waters" for improved health and rejuvenation. "The centuries-old act of bathing, soaking, or ingesting mineral-rich spring or seawater to cure a broad range of ailments, such as arthritis, rheumatism, and various aches and pains" was in vogue at springs in the late 19th and early 20th century.

I'm not sure exactly where the practice originated in the United States, but it surely had its roots in Europe, where towns like Baden-Baden in Germany, Bath in England and Spa in Belgium were known throughout the world for their water therapies. One of the most popular spots to take the waters in the early days of the United States was Saratoga Springs, New York. 

As in Florida, the Native Americans of the region revered the springs and the springs of Saratoga were not discovered by people of European descent until the late 18th century. By the early 1800s, hotels had been built near the springs for visitors seeking the therapeutic qualities of the water. Soon large scale resorts catering to wealthy tourists were developed, including two of the largest hotels in the world at the time. Similar Victorian-era spas were also developed in Florida at places like Green Cove Springs, Suwannee Springs and White Sulfur Springs.

Green Cove Springs, FL (State Archives of Florida)

Hampton Springs, FL (State Archives of Florida)

Like the springs in Florida, the springs waters of New York are a constant cold temperature (in this case 55 degrees compared to the 72 degree temperature of those in Florida.) Some of Saratoga's springs were "sprouters" that rise dramatically in the air like a geyser. All of the Saratoga springs have a high mineral content and are naturally carbonated, a fact that ultimately put them at risk.

Geyser Island Spring, located in Saratoga Spa State Park,
is a "sprouter"  on an island of minerals.

According to a display at the town's history museum, bottlers of soda pop at the start of the 20th century hired "companies to extract carbon dioxide gas from the mineral springs" causing the "depletion of the springs by over pumping." According to text on a separate exhibit at the town's visitors center, a single company might pump up to 400,000 gallons a day just to extract the gas and then merely dump the spring water on the ground. After the State assumed control of the 155 springs in 1909, all but 18 were sealed. The surviving springs are located in three areas, the Congress Park and High Rock Area near Saratoga Spring's downtown, and the spa complex today known as Saratoga Spa State Park. The later was developed by FDR as one of the first projects of the New Deal in 1929.

Congress Spring, said to be the "most famous of all of Saratoga's mineral waters",
was once "bottled and sold around the world."
Detail of Congress Spring tap; I wonder if the presence
of algae indicates contemporary water quality issues... 
Deer Park Spring emanates from this beautiful Victorian structure.
Hathorn Springs is a recently restored addition to the Congress Park area
Text on a tableau of one of the New Deal era buildings of Saratoga Spa State Park
While some of the structures are in wonderful condition,
others are in dire need of restoration
Art Deco relief on the pediment of Roosevelt Baths
Administration Building at Saratoga Spa State Park
Orenda Spring is said to have high iron content and is good for "strong blood"
The overflow from Orenda Spring forms this mound of hardened minerals
The high mineral content is obvious in spring
Sarasota Springs locals still swear by the medicinal value of the water
and fill water jugs from their favorite springs

I visited Saratoga Springs on two occasions on my recent vacation, stopping first at Saratoga Spa State Park and then making a separate pilgrimage to Congress Park to learn more. Despite the physical differences between the geology of the springs in Florida and Saratoga Springs, I found a common history and a common challenge. Overuse threatens the springs of Florida like they did in Saratoga Springs over 100 years ago. I was encouraged to read about the "Committee of Concerned Citizens" that came together to save these pure waters a century ago. Surely the concerned citizens of Florida can do the same in the 21st century.


  1. Wonderful! I was not aware of any of this history--now I want to visit Saratoga Springs. Thank you!

  2. Totally awesome. I really miss Saratoga, I need to schedule a trip there this fall. I'm glad you enjoyed it twice. This story hits a soft spot. Thank you for sharing it.