Taking the Waters at Saratoga Springs and Ballston Spa

“Taking the waters,” the practice of drinking and bathing in mineral springs to treat illness and promote health, was a popular habit in 19th-century America. Spa villages developed around the springs to cater to the growing number of visitors. Two of the most renowned resorts were the neighbouring communities of Saratoga Springs and Ballston Spa in upstate New York. This is where Napoleon and his brother Joseph Bonaparte fictionally take the waters in Napoleon in America.

Congress Spring, Saratoga, 1849

Congress Spring, Saratoga, 1849

The water cure

Across time and across cultures, water has been used for healing. Accounts of the curative use of water can be found in some of the earliest written records. The Romans built baths at mineral and thermal springs across Europe. After the fall of the Roman Empire, these fell into disuse. During the Renaissance, Italian doctors rediscovered ancient medical texts and began to recommend bathing and drinking cures for various medical conditions. This spread to other parts of Europe, where Roman spas at places like Aachen and Bath were revived as centres for the treatment of pain and disease. In the 1600s the practice reached North America, where English, Dutch and French colonists built log huts and wooden tubs near springs that Native Americans had long frequented.

A spring is a place where water wells up from an underground source. A mineral spring produces water that contains minerals or other substances dissolved during the water’s passage underground. This could include magnesium, calcium, sodium, zinc, iron, lithium, lime, alkalis, hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, or even traces of radium or uranium. By the beginning of the 19th century, doctors were analyzing mineral water and attempting to refine its use in medicine.

Individual treatments were prescribed, based on the composition and temperature of the water. Also, combinations of treatments were developed consisting of hot and cold baths, herbal baths, mud packs, active physical exercises, massages, and diets. (1)

In 1804, Napoleon’s first wife, Josephine, took the waters at Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen), hoping in vain that they would cure her of infertility so that she could produce the heir Napoleon desperately wanted. Aix-les-Bains, a spa town in southeastern France, was frequented by many members of Napoleon’s family, including Josephine, his second wife Marie Louise (who began her affair with Count von Neipperg there), his mother Letizia, his sister Pauline, and his adopted daughter Hortense.

At resorts such as these, the spa culture was as important as the springs themselves. Spa towns were fashionable places to see and to be seen. In addition to bath houses and fountains, they offered grand hotels, theatres, ballrooms, dining places, gardens and parks in which to walk and ride, and other forms of entertainment. Taking the waters was a social activity and an excuse to have fun.

The mineral waters of Saratoga Springs and Ballston Spa

The mineral springs in upstate New York were valued by Native Americans for their medicinal properties. In 1767, the Mohawks revealed the location of High Rock Spring, which they regarded as sacred, stirred by the god Manitou, to Sir William Johnson, the British Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the northern colonies. Johnson, who suffered from pain resulting from a bullet wound at the Battle of Lake George in 1755, drank some of the water, felt his health notably improved, and afterwards wrote to a friend: “I have just returned from a visit to a most amazing Spring, which almost effected my cure; and I have sent for Dr. Stringer, of New York, to come up and analyze it.” (2)

The village of Saratoga grew up around this and neighbouring springs, which are the only naturally carbonated springs in America east of the Rocky Mountains. As settlers drank the water, accounts of its healthful benefits spread. The first permanent dwelling was built around 1776. An inn was constructed above High Rock Spring, and, in 1802, a three-story tavern was built across from Congress Spring. This later became the Union Hotel.

Meanwhile, some 16 miles (26 km) to the west, the mineral springs at Ballston Spa were noted by surveyors in 1771. The first tavern was built there in 1787, with a hotel added in 1792. In 1803, the Sans Souci hotel was built at Ballston Spa. It was the largest hotel in the United States at the time: three stories high, with accommodation for 250 people. The first floor featured several parlors, a ballroom and a large dining room. The Sans Souci operated only in the summer, because of the expense of heating it. Initially it cost about $8/day to stay there, compared to $4/week at lesser lodgings. Prominent guests included Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Martin Van Buren, James Fenimore Cooper, Franklin Pierce, and Andrew Jackson. Although there were fewer springs at Ballston Spa, and the waters were thought to be less efficacious, it was considered an equally fashionable resort, thanks to the Sans Souci.

Sans Souci Hotel, Ballston Spa

Sans Souci Hotel, Ballston Spa

Businessman Elkanah Watson stayed at the Sans Souci in 1805.

We seated ourselves at a sumptuous table, with about a hundred guests of all classes, but generally, from their appearance and deportment, of first respectability, assembled here from every part of the Union and from Europe…. This is the most splendid watering place in America and is scarcely surpassed in Europe in its dimensions, and the taste and elegance of its arrangement. The building contains about one hundred apartments, all respectably furnished. The plan upon which it is constructed, the architecture, the style of the outbuildings and the gravel walks girted with shrubbery,—are all on a magnificent scale….

In the evening, we attended a ball in the spacious hall, brilliantly illuminated with chandeliers, and adorned with various other appliances of elegance and luxury. Here was congregated a fine exhibition of refinement of the ‘beau monde.’ A large proportion of the assembly was from the Southern States, and was distinguished by elegant and polished manners. Instead of the old-fashioned country dances and four-hand reels of revolutionary days, I was pleased to notice the advance of refined customs, and the introduction of the graces of Paris, in the elegant cotillion and quadrille. At table, I was delighted in observing the style and appearance of the company, males and females, intermixed in the true French usage of ‘sans souci.’ The board was supplied in profusion, not only with a rich variety, but with the luxuries of more sunny climes. There was a great display of servants, handsomely dressed, while the music of a choice band enlivened the festivities. (3)

Joseph Bonaparte at the springs

Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte, who lived for many years in the United States, was a regular visitor at both Saratoga Springs and Ballston Spa. When visiting the latter, he stayed at the Sans Souci. When visiting the former, he stayed at the United States Hotel. Scottish politician James Stuart noted in 1828: “He now associates at the public table as an American citizen, which he did not do at first on coming to this country.” (4) Stuart also reported the following anecdote.

There is…a fishing pond conveniently situated only two miles from the Springs, the proprietor of which, Mr. Barhyte, of German extraction, makes strangers very welcome to enjoy the sport. Although he has considerable property, not of trifling value, we found him, the first time that we called in the evening to see the place, at work with the necessary implements, mending his shoes. I positively at first took him for a shoemaker but he received us so hospitably that I soon was convinced of the mistake I had so nearly committed. Everyone in this country is taught to do much more for himself than with us. I have never met an American who, when put to it, could not use the needle well. Mr. Barhyte set down cider and peach brandy and forced us to partake before he would show us his grounds. The pond is not of great extent but the scenery about it, though on a small scale, is sweet. It pleased Joseph Bonaparte so much that Mr. Barhyte told us he would have been very glad to acquire it as a retired situation for himself on his annual visit to the springs, but Mr. Barhyte was not inclined to sell. King Joseph got the first lesson in fishing from Barhyte, in which, however, he says, he is by no means proficient. (5)

Another tale about Joseph surfaced later in the 19th century, purportedly from a manuscript discovered in a tin case under a skeleton on Mount Vista in 1866. The manuscript contained the following passage, dated Saratoga Springs, August 1, 1828. The authenticity is highly doubtful, given that it refers to Joseph being there with his sister and his daughters, none of whom were in America at the time. Nonetheless, I’ll include it for your amusement.

Joseph Bonaparte, at present the guest of Mr. Walton, did not arrive until quite late. He was accompanied by his sister, Caroline Murat, and two young ladies, his daughters. Though a crowned king, he looks very much like other mortals. His manners, dress, and equipage are wholly unassuming, quiet, and unpretentious, as is likewise the case with the ladies of his family. The rank is there, and needs no demonstration. The delay in coming to the party was occasioned by a little incident, which occurred while he was at dinner today with Mr. Walton…. It seems that in the course of the dinner, Bonaparte all at once turned deadly pale, and, with the perspiration standing in great beads on his forehead, faced imploringly to Mr. Walton, gasping out, ‘Un chat! Un chat!

‘John,’ said Mr. Walton to his waiter, ‘take away the cat; it disturbs this gentleman.’

‘Cat, sir?’ echoed John, ‘I can see no cat!’

The other members of the family now joined in the search; and at last, sure enough, under the side-board, crouched away in a dark corner, was discovered a poor little frightened kitten. But it was not until Bonaparte had lain down for some hours that he fully recovered from the nervous prostration into which the presence of the little feline had thrown him. (6)

A day at the spa in 1790

Elkanah Watson first visited the mineral springs at Saratoga and Ballston in September of 1790, when the amenities were primitive.

I spent a day, bathing in a trough, and drinking the exhilarating water, which gushes from the centre of a rock. I met with about a dozen respectable people, sojourning at a wretched tavern. The wildness of the region, and the excessively bad accommodation, made me recur to the condition of Bath, in the barbarous ages, when, several centuries before Christ, as the legend says, the springs were discovered by their salutary effect upon a herd of distempered swine wallowing in the mud.

The Saratoga waters were discovered, about twenty years ago, as I was informed by Mr. Ball of Ballston, in following a deer track; but, it is supposed, their existence was known to the Indians. The remarkable medicinal qualities of these springs, and their accessible position, must render this spot, at some future period, the Bath of America. At present, it is enveloped in rudeness and seclusion, with no accommodations appropriate to civilized man. The rock through which the water issues by a narrow passage, has been probably formed by petrifaction. Vessels are let down, through this fissure or natural well, to procure the water for drinking.

There is no convenience for bathing, except an open log hut with a large trough, similar to those in use for feeding swine, which receives water from a spring. Into this you roll from a bench. This water appears to be strongly impregnated with saline ingredients, highly charged with fixed air, and is almost as animated as champagne wine. Its taste is grateful, but it leaves an unpleasant impression upon the palate. Those accustomed to it, however, regard it as a great luxury. It is in high estimation, as a specific in all scorbutic affections, gout, rheumatism, etc. These springs are situated in a marsh, partially encompassed by slight and pretty eminences, along the margin of which the road winds. A little off from the highway, I visited a new spring, which is much more highly charged with mineral elements. This is called the Congress Spring.

From Saratoga I proceeded to Tryon’s, a low one-story tavern on a hill in Ballston. At the foot of this hill, I found an old barrel with the staves open, stuck into the mud in the midst of a quagmire, surrounded with trees, stumps, and logs. This was the Ballston Spring. I observed two or three ladies, walking along a fallen tree, so as to reach the fountain; and I was disgusted at seeing as many men washing their loathsome sores near the barrel. There was also a shower bath, with no protection except a bower of bushes. Tryon’s was the only public house, no buildings having been erected below the hill. The greatest number of visitors at one period, the past summer, was ten or twelve, and these were as many as could be accommodated. (7)

A day at the spa in 1828

James Stuart found things considerably improved when he visited Saratoga Springs in 1828.

The taste [of the water from the Congress Spring] is very agreeable; and the briskness of the water at the fountain delightful. Three or four pint tumblers are generally taken in the morning before breakfast. We also, as most people do, use it at meals from choice, although it is never so good as at the fountain, before there is any escape of gas. The people resident in the village and its neighbourhood, within six or eight miles of the place, have it carried to their houses, preferring it very much to ordinary spring water. The quantity of gas is such, that a very nice sort of breakfast bread is baked with Congress water, instead of yeast. So large a quantity of it is bottled, and sent all over the states, that the proprietors, Messrs Lynch and Clarke, are said to be making a fortune of it. Even the American packet ships are supplied with it in abundance; but there is a very considerable loss of the gas in bottling, which renders the taste insipid, and the least loss of gas occasions a precipitation of iron, which gives the water a muddy appearance. Seltzer water in the bottled state is as pleasant as Congress water, except at the fountain.

The use of the water is chiefly recommended in bilious, dyspeptic, and calculous complaints, for diseases of the skin, and for chronic rheumatism ; but the great bulk of the people who resort to these celebrated springs, many of them regularly once a year, come for amusement, and for the preservation, rather than the recovery, of health, at a period of the year, when the violence of the heat renders a visit to a high and comparatively a cold country very desirable. I have found the use of the water and the baths so beneficial for a trifling complaint, for which I had last year tried the water at Harrowgate, that we resolved to remain here and at Ballston springs for a couple of months.

The gay people had almost disappeared before we arrived. The invalids seem to live very sparingly, — hardly tasting any liquid but the water, and tea, which here, and at other places where we have been, we sometimes observe ladies take at dinner. Many of those invalids are quite able to take exercise in the open air, and would, if I am not much, mistaken, derive as much benefit from it, if taken in moderation, as from the use of the water ; but they seem to confine themselves to a five or ten minutes walk in the morning, when they go to the fountain, and to a drive in an open carriage for an hour, or an hour and a-half. When they meet us walking several miles for exercise, and the pleasure of being in the open air, they, whether acquainted with us or not, frequently stop their vehicles, and very civilly offer us a ride with them, and can hardly believe us serious, when we, in declining to avail ourselves of their kindly meant offer, tell them that we prefer to walk.

There are few more striking points of difference between this country and Britain, than in the numbers of the people who ride and walk on the public roads. It absolutely seems disgraceful to be seen walking; and, though there are no fine equipages here, every one rides in his gig, dearborn, or open carriage of some description or other. This circumstance no doubt proves the easy circumstances of the mass of the people, as well as the value of time to a mechanic, or labourer, whose wages may be from one to two dollars a-day, and can better afford to pay for a conveyance, and spend less time, than to walk, and spend more. Still I am persuaded that our habits in this respect are far more favourable for health; and that dyspepsia, a very general complaint in New York State, and in this country, is in no inconsiderable degree owing to the people supposing, that enough of exercise can be had in carriages and waggons, especially by persons almost always partaking of animal food largely three times a-day, who hardly ever walk a mile, or mount on horseback.” (8)

Stuart also checked out Ballston Spa.

On the 31st of October, we changed our quarters from Saratoga springs to Ballston Spa, in a pleasant situation, in a hollow surrounded on all sides by high grounds. The Kayaderoseras, a small river, runs through the village, containing 800 or 1000 people.

There are only two great hotels here, the Sans Souci, which is on the largest scale, and Mr. Aldridge’s. There are several small hotels and boarding-houses. The baths are equally good here as at Saratoga springs; but the water is obviously not so pleasant to the taste, nor are its effects so powerful. The quantity of carbonic acid gas in a gallon of the water is only 210 cubic inches, while in the Congress water it is 343 cubic inches. The substances common to both are here in smaller quantity.

We are in the boarding-house of Mrs. Macmaster, one of the most comfortable we have seen in this country. The house is managed by herself, two daughters, and a little girl. Every thing good of its kind ; poultry the best that we have met with; dinners well-cooked; and coffee as well prepared as in the best restaurateurs in the Palais Royal. The charge four dollars per week. But this is not the gay season, when the rate is of course greater. (9)

Decline of the springs

With the advent of the railroad in 1832, tourism to the area burgeoned. Doctors recommended the waters as a treatment for kidney and liver diseases, rheumatism, cancer, and a host of other conditions. For a time, Saratoga Springs was America’s most popular tourist destination. The opening of the Saratoga race course in 1863, with horse racing and betting, added to the appeal. By the late 19th century, however, the mineral springs at both Saratoga Springs and Ballston Spa were considerably depleted due to overuse. Businesses were pumping water out of the springs to extract carbonic gas for use in soft drinks and soda fountains. Meanwhile, advances in medicine reduced the springs’ therapeutic appeal. Tourism dropped off and the Sans Souci Hotel was demolished in 1887.

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  1. A van Tubergen, S. van der Linden, “A brief history of spa therapy,” Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, Vol. 61, No. 3 (March 2002), p. 274.
  2. William Leete Stone, Reminiscences of Saratoga and Ballston (New York, 1875), p. 10.
  3. Winslow C. Watson, Men and Times of the Revolution; or, Memoirs of Elkanah Watson (New York, 1856), pp. 407-409.
  4. James Stuart, Three Years in North America, Vol. I (Edinburgh, 1833), p. 194.
  5. Ibid., pp. 199-200.
  6. “Chronicles of Saratoga,” Onward: A Magazine for the Young Manhood of America, Vol. 2, (New York, 1869), p. 212.
  7. Watson, Men and Times of the Revolution; or, Memoirs of Elkanah Watson, pp. 334-335.
  8. Stuart, Three Years in North America, Vol. I, pp. 192-194.
  9. Ibid., p. 221.

6 commments on “Taking the Waters at Saratoga Springs and Ballston Spa”

  • Irene Hartlmayr says:

    The Bonapartes seem to have been particularly fussy about cats. Of Napoleon it is said that he was scared of cats and his sister Pauline also disliked them. I wonder why !? Some people are superstitious about cats. Napoleon was said to have been rather superstitious altogether.

  • Addison Jump says:

    I never read of N taking the waters, yet it is hard to imagine any man needing a break more. Perhaps because he had too active a disposition or because he never read of Alexander or Caesar doing so.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      I’ve never seen anything about him taking the waters either, Addison. I imagine you’re right about the reasons.

  • Paul Chamberlain says:

    I found this article of great interest as I am researching General Lefebvre Desnouettes and his stay in England after his capture and his escape from the country in 1812. I have come across interesting details of just how much the Admiralty indulged him while he was on parole.

    He resided on parole in Cheltenham, along with his wife, ADC and two servants. Cheltenham was not one of the regular Parole Depots in use at the time, so residing in a spa town was an indulgence given to him because of his health. While there he made extended visits to Malvern, another spa town, and visits to London to seek medical advice.

    I have yet to find out exactly what his health issue was that required him to take the waters at these two spa towns, but he obviously had some issue that the medical profession thought would be eased/cured by taking the waters.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      I’m glad you found the article of interest, Paul. That’s interesting about General Lefebvre Desnouettes. I wonder what the health issue was.

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There is no convenience for bathing, except an open log hut with a large trough, similar to those in use for feeding swine, which receives water from a spring. Into this you roll from a bench.

Elkanah Watson