Readers, if you have never been to Saratoga Springs in upstate New York you are missing a great experience.
I recently went for my annual vacation in this historic town nestled in the foothills of the Adirondacks.
It became famous in the 19th century because of the restorative power of its springs which cured everything from baldness to lumbago to rheumatic pains by all accounts.
It was once one the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Back in the 19th century it had massive hotels capable of hosting 1,500 people a night. Before the age of air travel Saratoga Springs was the place to be for New York's and Boston’s wealthiest.
Among the celebrities who haunted the place was President Ulysses Grant, who died in a cottage not far from town having just completed his memoirs which saved his family from bankruptcy.
Irish American Diamond Jim Brady, one of the greatest and richest railroad men of all time, and his girlfriend Lillian Russell, a star of stage and music halls, are still remembered in the town, her with a famous restaurant called Lillian’s, he with a square named in his honor.
Brady was also a massive gambler who helped keep open the many casinos Saratoga ran in those days. He is a portly chap in the photographs.
No wonder. Here’s a description of his daily diet, as described in a biography:
“Jim started things off in the morning with a light breakfast of beefsteak, a few chops, eggs, flapjacks, fried potatoes, hominy, corn-bread, a few muffins, and a huge beaker of milk.
“Luncheon was apt to be a bit heavier than breakfast. It generally consisted of more oysters and clams, a deviled crab or two, or three, perhaps a pair of broiled lobsters, then a joint of beef or another steak, a salad, and several kinds of fruit pie. Jim also liked to finish off this meal with the better part of a box of chocolate candies. It made the food set better, he figured.”
Famed writer Damon Runyon wrote unforgettable stories about local gamblers and the sharks and conmen who inhabited the track, like Harry the Horse who stayed there every summer.
Until Jimmy Breslin nobody wrote like Runyon, a Broadway reporter and writer whose stories were the basis of Guys and Dolls. He knew every gambler, hoofer, rumrunner and skirt chaser in New York.
“If I have all the tears that are shed on Broadway by guys in love, I will have enough salt water to start an opposition ocean to the Atlantic and Pacific, with enough left over to run the Great Salt Lake out of business,” he wrote.
“But I wish to say I never shed any of these tears personally, because I am never in love, and furthermore, barring a bad break, I never expect to be in love, for the way I look at it love is strictly the old phedinkus (nonsense), and I tell the little guy as much.”
The magical waters at Saratoga led to a massive exodus from New York and environs northward to Saratoga ever summer.
The springs were only part of the attraction. There was gambling, lots of it. As usual there was an Irishman deeply involved.
John Morrissey from Tipperary, a former prizefighter, decided that a racetrack would be the perfect location for the high and mighty and low and hungry.
He kicked it off in 1863. Now Saratoga Race Course is the singularly most successful racetrack in the U.S. with its seven-week season in high summer featuring the best horses from all over the country.
These days much of the frontier charm of those early days has been retained in the town center. Historical buildings on Broadway abound and the racetrack still dominates the economy and the mental space of the town.
You step back a little in time on every visit, a magical place still faithful to the old traditions but also embracing the new.