An ornate gazabo sits beside a smooth pond surrounded by short cut grass and tall trees.

Between War and Water: Saratoga Springs and Veteran Health after the First World War

One month and eight days before world leaders signed the Armistice to end the First World War, New York Governor Charles Whitman wrote to Surgeon General William Gorgas to ensure that his state would play a role in caring for America’s veterans. He advocated on behalf of Saratoga Springs, a vibrant city forty miles north of Albany, to convince the U.S. Army to establish a General Hospital there for the treatment of “wounded and incapacitated soldiers.” He referenced the large area of state-owned land, the hotel space available for hospital use, and the famous carbonated mineral spring water, “flowing in almost unlimited quantity from a number of deep springs and wells” which were “without a parallel on this continent.”1

Whitman’s letter joined a plethora of other appeals from Saratoga hotel owners and New York State bureaucrats beginning in October 1917 hoping to open the doors and the waters to returning veterans, reflecting a point of intersection between veteran health care and environmental therapy.

The Saratoga petitions and the Surgeon General’s ultimate decision against using the town both stand at the crossroads of a variety of turn-of-the-century impulses. The State’s appeal to the federal government contributes to understandings of how New Yorkers sought to show their patriotism spanning the entirety of the 1914-1918 war. In fact, the relatively small city, much like New York more broadly, was everything but immune to the encompassing power of war.

A reflective lake surrounded by tall trees and a rock wall and rock-sided building.
Lake Yaddo, Saratoga Springs, NY, c. 1900-1910. (Detroit Publishing Co./US Library of Congress)

Details within the written communication also reveal how the Army chose locations for their expanding, yet relatively short-lived expanse of U.S. Army General Hospitals immediately following the war, a process that often seems shrouded in the mechanisms of state development. And it demonstrates how New Yorkers joined other Progressive Era environmental-related health movements through their utilization of hydrotherapeutic measures and clean air to sell the government on Saratoga Springs as a place where veterans could heal in the spas of the northeast.

The springs of Saratoga have a long history of use for healing. The Iroquois frequently visited the area for spring water, and knowledge of the water continued with European settlers who visited periodically until Gideon Putnam settled and built one of the first spring-water bathhouses in the early 1800s. Saratoga developed gradually through the nineteenth century around the popularity of the springs continually attracting visitors with its luxurious hotels and, beginning in the 1860s, its growing horse racing scene.2

By the turn of the century, the city had become one of the pre-eminent health tourism destinations for the well-to-do, rivaling its European counterparts in Belgium, Britain, and France. Therefore, Saratoga’s water joined a transnational movement of hydrotherapy. Advertisements touted its healing powers in treating diseases of the digestive tract, circulatory and heart problems, and nervous disorders.3

In the context of the war, citizens and bureaucrats offered abundant real estate and resources. The State of New York’s proposal included 60 acres of land and 150,000 gallons of spring water per day both free of charge.4 This was an impressive gesture considering just ten years prior the state stepped in to seize the water supply after exorbitant levels of corporate gas pumping left the springs almost beyond restoration.5

A large, ornate mansion with plentiful windows sits atop a small hill surrounded by a large lawn and trees.
The Mansion at Yaddo, home of the Trasks, in Saratoga Springs, NY, c. 1900-1910. (Detroit Publishing Co./US Library of Congress)

Saratoga citizens offered more than just water, however. The owners of the United States Hotel, one of the largest in the city, offered their six hundred-room building for $75,000 per year.6 One landowner offered seventy acres of their property free of charge.7 Mrs. Spencer Trask granted her large estate at Yaddo Gardens, a six-hundred-acre piece of land with a large house that had served as a large victory garden during the war, as a convalescent home where the air was “crisp, clear, vital and health-giving.”8

Nearly every letter included reference to the clean air and availability of the spring water. All told, the bid received written support from the Governor, the Conservation Commissioner, a wealthy philanthropist, a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and both United States Senators from New York.

Saratoga’s hydrotherapeutic, health-laden bid was ultimately unsuccessful. By the time the Surgeon General sent two medical officers to inspect Saratoga properties for potential hospital use in February 1918, a majority of the U.S. Army General Hospitals had either been established, including five in New York State alone. William Gorgas’s personnel who traveled to Saratoga found that of the roughly sixteen inspected, only two hotels were large enough for hospital use.

An early twentieth century US street scene with a very wide sidewalk, people in straw hats standing and talking, and a line of columned buildings.
Broadway and the Grand Union Hotel, Saratoga Springs, NY, c. 1900-1910. (Detroit Publishing Co./US Library of Congress)

The Grand Union Hotel and the United States Hotel both touted relatively large capacities and close proximity to the railroad station. The buildings benefitted from modern electricity, and in the case of the Grand Union Hotel enjoyed the close proximity of the attractive Congress Park. Despite these perks, they were not constructed with the required fireproof walls and needed updated heating facilities, nor could they hold the military’s required one-thousand-bed capacity. Other hotels were far too small, like the Adelphi, which the inspectors considered for housing wounded officers or nurses and which today is one of the only remaining buildings from the study.9

Despite the rejection, New York State bureaucrats continued to imbue their water and atmosphere with the power of patriotism and nationalism in hope of using its advantages for their returning heroes. Despite the official decision in 1918 to reject Saratoga’s offer, in the summer of 1919 New York State’s Conservation Commissioner mobilized a modest newspaper campaign that lauded Saratoga’s waters as both far superior to any of its European counterparts and a place for veterans to heal.

Copy of a piece of a newspaper piece titled "Saratoga Springs New York: The Summer Paradise of the East: The health and pleasure resort of distinguished Americans for over a century."
“Saratoga Springs: The Summer Paradise of the East: The Health and Pleasure Resort of Distinguished Americans for Over a Century” New York Times, June 15, 1919, p. 45.

One advertisement referred to the spas in its historical context, arguing that Saratoga is where “Red Men bore their disabled warriors to be healed by the Waters of the Great Spirit — and later came heroes of our first battles.”10 They targeted veterans in particular, offering Saratoga in each ad as “a splendid place to recuperate from the strenuous times ‘Over There.’”11 Despite the federal government’s rejection, Commissioner Pratt took the campaign public seeking to attract America’s veterans and thereby further secure New York’s legacy in the military’s medical infrastructure.

Saratoga’s bid for a place in the stateside veteran medical framework must be understood within the larger context of New York’s efforts to prove their patriotism surrounding the war years. The use of Saratoga’s “crisp, clear” air and water for these purposes situates this unsuccessful yet important endeavor at the nexus of environmental healing therapies and modern American veterans’ health while providing an interesting history of the still popular Saratoga Spring water.

The state’s effort in 1917-1919, combined with the contributions of senior state and national bureaucrats, also hints at Saratoga’s role within expanding veterans’ health services and the decisions that constructed them. The U.S. Army inspection of Saratoga in the winter of 1918 proves that the Army considered seriously the hydrotherapeutic and clean air measures of upstate New York in treating its wounded and sick veterans of the Great War. The First World War prompted the politicization of nearly all aspects of American life, and Saratoga’s carbonated spring water was not immune to these impulses.

Notes

  1. Governor Charles S. Whitman to Surgeon General William C. Gorgas, October 3, 1918, RG 112, Series NM 31 (F), Box 355, Folder: 601-1 (Saratoga Springs, N.Y.), US National Archives. Return to text.
  2. Anthony V. Benedetto and Larry E. Millikan, “Mineral Waters and Spas in the United States” Clinics in Dermatology, Vol. 14, No. 6 (1996). Return to text.
  3. “Saratoga Springs: The Summer Paradise of the East” New York Times, June 15, 1919, p. 45 Return to text.
  4. George D. Pratt to William C. Gorgas, September 24, 1918, RG 112, Series NM 31 (F), Box 355, Folder: 601-1 (Saratoga Springs, N.Y.), US National Archives. Return to text.
  5. Anthony V. Benedetto and Larry E. Millikan, “Mineral Waters and Spas in the United States” Clinics in Dermatology, 14, no. 6 (1996), 591. Return to text.
  6. M.I. Stornberger to the Surgeon General, July 30, 1918, RG 112, Series NM 31 (F), Box 355, Folder: 601-1 (Saratoga Springs, N.Y.), US National Archives. Return to text.
  7. Morris Franklin to the Surgeon General, July 31, 1918, RG 112, Series NM 31 (F), Box 355, Folder: 601-1 (Saratoga Springs, N.Y.), US National Archives. Return to text.
  8. Mrs. Spencer Trask to the Surgeon General, August 30, 1918, RG 112, Series NM 31 (F), Box 355, Folder: 601-1 (Saratoga Springs, N.Y.), US National Archives. Return to text.
  9. Captain C. Burns Craig and Captain J.A. Musser to Major Edgar King, “Facilities for Hospital Purposes at Saratoga Springs, N.Y.” February 21, 1918, RG 112, Series NM 31 (F), Box 355, Folder: 601-1 (Saratoga Springs, N.Y.), US National Archives; Major Murray to Commissioner Pratt, September 30, 1918, RG 112, Series NM 31 (F), Box 355, Folder: 601-1 (Saratoga Springs, N.Y.), US National Archives. Return to text.
  10. “Saratoga Springs, the Health and Pleasure Resort of Distinguished Americans for Over a Century” The New York Tribune, June 8, 1919, p. 2R. Return to text.
  11. “Saratoga Springs: Our American Spa” New York Times, August 17, 1919, p. 73. Return to text.

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