Like a freight train getting rusty when sitting on a side track for too long, I creak back into gear…April 20, 2021… (finally hitting PUBLISH on this in September of ’21…sorry for the delay– and I will be adding graphics & pix to this and other new stories as I go)…
When last I left off on this site…I recall speaking to some people at the fresh water fountains of Geyser Stream springs just as the Covid-19 lockdown was about to become mandatory. In early March 2020, we still weren’t sure what was coming or happening. I felt like talking to somebody, anybody, that day, as if I was a State Park Volunteer — neither official nor wearing a patch– or a Local History guide. I was certainly not getting paid either way, lol, as I gave a young mom and her daughters– already being home schooled at that point — a quick mini-spiel on the 3 people who seemed most pertinent to me in the recent century’s revival of Saratoga’s famous and still-flowing mineral springs. I never published that piece, and there might be some overlap here when I wrap some of these notes into my novel-in-progress if I finish that as intended– but my 3 key-archetypes were these:
Theodore Roosevelt— who as Governor of NY triggered the later salvation of the these sacred water sources from the commercial forces which almost depleted them well-before we got to the present day. This entire 2000+ acre Spa State Park could have easily become an over-populated suburb of downtown Saratoga Springs if it hadn’t been set aside as Park-land for all New Yorkers to enjoy, as a State-owned property. In an area where commercial bottlers and those types of off-spring businesses had gotten to the point where they simply stole the carbonic gases, not even caring about the water itself in the 1890s and early 1900s till abruptly shut down in the Park, between 1909 and 1915. There are plenty of great plaques and tableaux at various spots there which tell the story in pictures and better detail than I can summarize here… but my point is that while others were ultimately responsible for the laws and regulations which saved the springs from extinction, it took someone higher up on the political ladder– Teddy Roosevelt, both as a NY State Governor then soon after ascending to U.S. President — to appreciate the beauty and deep functionality of these springs. As both a rugged outdoorsman and sophisticated world traveler, he saw our beloved spot potentially being on a par with similar sanctuaries in Great Britain and Europe. In the 1890s and early 1900s however, the tendency was toward commercial use & exploitation of the sacred natural waters that were being tapped in the area south of the City of Saratoga Springs, which had become known as The Reservation. The area now seen as a natural preserve was then more or less an industrial site, churning smoke stacks for plants that bottled the water and sapped the seemingly inexhaustible supply of carbonation from the grounds. The aforementioned black-&-white, dated photos of this inauspicious era at certain historical kiosks along walking trails of the State Park and specifically along Geyser Creek itself would make good background material for any local home-schoolers, I would think. Exercise, fresh air, scenic views everywhere you look– that would have been my ideal as a history class when I was a kid. That uncertain era, Saratoga’s own turning point, well after the Revolution, was merely 100-120 years ago.
I will mention below the names of other important characters who facilitated lasting positive change back in that time period where things could have gone a different direction, possibly leaving Saratoga looking like scarred post-industrial parts of Gloversville after the glove factories left, Amsterdam after the rug industry pulled out, or Watervliet after their massive steel shut down. Fortunately the Park forms part of the Greenbelt that envelops the larger city, and is alongside the route by which the most people enter our fair Vale, and forms an idyllic impression before they reach downtown.
But here is a lesser-known aspect of the City’s history: at some indeterminate time– before or after the 1915 establishment of The City of Saratoga Springs, I am not sure-– there were also plans to suburbanize the entire State Park area, even though it had designated as forever wild. I know this from my early days working for the Saratoga County Real Property Department, when I had access to the City tax records in the downtown Assessment office, where I was astonished to find the area just west of South Broadway laced with “paper streets” that would’ve allowed residential development of the roughly 2000 acres that make up the Spa State Park now. Fortunately, those plans never came to fruition, and the entire plot between Route 9 ( aka South Broadway) and Route 50 (now known as Ballston Ave in the stretch adjacent to the Park) remains as NY State-owned property, with no private residences on Park grounds at all. There were other local politicians who, during the pivotal years between 1908 and 1915 that had the foresight to ensure public access, but it is my belief that Teddy Roosevelt had a lot to do with preserving this amazing place as a permanent State Park.
Why is this relevant to my current day? How about, because for the entire duration of the Covid-19 pandemic, which happened to coincide with my divorce, and hence my disenfranchisement from my former Middle Grovian home, where I could strive outside at the drop of my leather, all-weather hat on my head… and hike the paths near the north fork of the mighty Kayderosseras Creek, at will.
Now the Saratoga Spa State Park is my haven, not walkable from where I am, but a backyard I am glad to be able to drive to in minutes. A place where the words Succor, Sanctuary, Serenity come to mind. A place that has saved my sanity, such as it is. It is not the Only sacred space I visit, but it is the closest and largest retreat, which has facilitated social distancing in a great way for this reclusive writer, who walks much more regularly than he blogs.
And on the many rambling strolls I’ve taken within its limits– no less than 2-3 times per week over this past year-plus– I’ve thought about how to re-engage this particular WaynesWord2 Blog, which is deeply linked to this specific zone I’ve chosen to live in these past 45 years. I had to simply pick up off where I left off, in my version of Walden Pond…Saratoga Spa State Park….
But– back to the tale of the 3 people who perhaps impacted me the most on this subject…
The other two are not as well known, and have both passed away during my time here, but I was honored to have met and interviewed them both:
Dr. Grace Maguire Swanner I will mention first– she was most notably the author of what some call The Bible of Saratoga’s Springs- a scholarly study full of the history and nature of said springs, the science behind their curative powers, their variouschemical compositions, and the physical sites of all local springs, which she published in 1988. That book was simply titled “SARATOGA: QUEEN OF SPAS.” (North Country Books, Utica, NY 13501). I hope it is still in print, but can be found in the Saratoga Room of our public library if not, and perhaps at Lyrical Ballad on Phila Street if not. Along with my somewhat-worn copy of Evelyn Barrett Britten’s classic 1959 “CHRONICLES OF SARATOGA” these are my go-to histories of this adopted hometown I found in my 20s.
Instead of trying to write an unworthy synopsis of her masterwork, let me tell you that she was 86 years old by the time it was officially published! By the time I finally discovered that amazing resource, I had heard her name many times in a legendary context, among the cogniscenti who knew of her knowledge and accomplishments. Another Realtor in town who’d grown up here had pointed out the classic & ornate duplex building she and her family had occupied on Lake Avenue since she began her practice in the City in the latter 1930s. Her family name was immortalized in a manner no other newcomers would likely achieve: the Alley behind her family home, off Circular Street, is called Swanner Lane.
She had a science degree from Albany Teacher’s College in her early 20s, plus a Master’s from Columbia by 1927. She was the only woman in her graduating class from Albany Medical College. In her 3rd year there, 1932, she began summer work alongside the Medical Director of the Saratoga Spa, Dr. Walter McClennan. A graduate of Harvard Medical School, he had formed a fascination with “balneology” as practiced at the famed Spas of Europe. The NYS Legislature must have had some visionaries in charge, even in the midst of the Great Depression they had the wisdom to invest in the Saratoga Springs Commission to organize and support a “spa worthy of the fine mineral springs of the Saratoga area, as she writes in her book’s introduction. Dr. Swanner was one of two medical assistants appointed to assist Dr. McClellan in a research project regarding spring water treatments of high blood pressure, arthritis, and heart disease… hmmm, still a relevant societal topic.
After her hiring by Saratoga Hospital and development of her own practice locally, she ultimately took over from her former teacher as Medical Director at the Spa, and then after retirement took on the massive research project project which resulted in her comprehensive book on the Mineral Waters of our area. She was in her 90s by the time a managed to arrange a meeting, for my own curiosity, under the pretext of a magazine story I never quite got published myself, about her.
I felt like I had gone back to a more elegant time. I awaited her presence at the time of my appointment, waiting in her front parlor. She was dressed as if going for a formal dinner, while I was embarrassed to still be in my more casual attire, shall we say. She spoke as formally as she appeared, her wit and language sharp and focused. Her stories and recollections were precise. Tea was brought out at some point, and I think I realized that certain aspects of respectable aristocracy were not so bad, despite my bohemian past. I think she was fond of my intense interest in the springs, since she felt that, overall, there had been some neglect and backsliding with regard to maintenance of the facilities at the State Park during the most recent decades. Spring water was not in fashion in the mid- 1990s, and she felt saddened by that, although she had done her part to celebrate and tout these waters. Her book had come out to some local fanfare a few years earlier, and to the librarians and scholars in town she was a goddess of sorts, a legend, but I believe she felt the powers of the Spa were being ignored, and relegated to history more than the present, at the time.
Although I had hoped to be in her presence again, and did buy her book, that was my only meeting with her, yet it was memorable– her voice, her wisdom, her fervent beliefs. She lived to be 98, passing away in October, 2000. Her obituary was splendidly writ in The Saratogian of that that month, and mentioned a lot of accomplishments and life events that she hadn’t mentioned, there were so many. The beauty of cyberspace and google and Wikipedia– and, yes, actual books–is that people’s stories live on, and her research can still be found, and consulted.
I give her a toast every time I sip the salty Hathorn #1 spring, or sample the Orenda!
Lastly, but most personally pertinent to me, is and was Stafford Rouse.
Stafford was a local man– he first introduced himself to me, by memnomically, noting– “Stafford’s Bridge, Rouse’s Point.” He described his profession as a “steward” for Skidmore College, which today we would call a landscaper. He was perhaps more famous as an amazing Dowser. He did not work with a forked branch; his methodology was expert use of a lead sinker tied to the end of a string, which either made a circular motion if the answer to his internal questions was Yes, or an absolutely still motion, which meant No. He was part of a Vermont group of Dowsers, he told me, because there was no such group that he knew of in upstate New York. He was very matter-of-fact in his discussion of how many people he’d helped locate their wells, but was also effective in the still-little known field of psychic healing, which I am not going to discuss in this context, but will feature at some point in my novel.
The reason I mention this laconic grey-haired genius who lived just outside of Saratoga Springs proper, on Church Street Extension, out near the long-gone Brook Casino, is because, in the course of several visits to his classic stone-faced cape, he once showed me an article from 1956 in a folded copy of the Sunday Saratogian, which had done a feature story about his talents:
LOCAL MAN LOCATES LONG-LOST SPRINGS AT STATE PARK
I wish to this day that I could go back revisit him, and make a copy of that newspaper article, though there is likely an extant microfiche archive of that at the downtown Library, somewhere.
The story, as best as I can recall, mentioned that, over time, many of the hundred-plus springs that followed the fault-line that ran south thru Saratoga from Excelsior Park thru High Rock Park, thru Congress Park down to the Spa State Park, had been lost or buried or forgotten or ignored over the intervening time since their heyday in the mid-late 1800s. There were a few still running in the State Park, which fueled the Lincoln, Washington, and Roosevelt Baths. But Park officials knew there had to be more sources, dating back to old print records.. They somehow heard of Stafford’s talents as a Dowser, and enlisted him to help.
Long story short– he helped recover about a dozen or more springs that needed to be re-tapped, and he instructed them where they could be found, at what depth they would be struck, and also what the primary mineral ingredients might be found there.
He told me the news story version was dead wrong in one specific manner– he had not done the dousing in person, at the park, but from home, at his dining room table, with a large map of the State Park spread out before him, and the lead-sinker in his right hand, marking each spot were a lost spring was lurking. “I did not have to go out to the Park till later, when I showed them where to drill. I did it all from here.”
Apparently the well-drillers that worked for the State were impressed with his accuracy, according to the story; he was infallible.
Stafford died in 1985, shortly after his wife passed away, after which he showed little interest in continuing. He was an invaluable resource to me and I visited him like a favorite uncle, as often as I could. He was a fan and follower of Edgar Cayce, an avid reader of books like The Secret Life of Flowers, and the most down-to-earth mystical dude I ever met, to this day. I think of him and Dr. Swanner equally, and feel they would both be pleased at the resurgence in interest and investment in the waters and facilities of the State Park. Having sampled the Roosevelt’s updated Baths & Spa, and having watched the exciting development of the COESA.org Wellness Community, and the restoration of that formerly defunct building at the Park… it seems the Saratoga Spa State Park has come back stronger than ever…
I have other Stafford Rouse and Dr. Grace Swanner stories, and if other people reading this know of or recall any others , I’d be happy to hear or read them. My email is email@example.com. My non-real estate cell is: 518-344-9314. Thank you for reading!
More to come soon…
Next: What I Missed Most!