There’s a park in the middle of Saratoga Springs that was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the same guy who designed Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The greatest landscape architect of the 19th century, Olmsted knew a thing or two about creating nature in the middle of a city.
Congress Park dates from 1876, the height of Saratoga’s Victorian fame as a place of summertime racing, gambling and acts of ill repute. The park offered a retreat from all the excitement around it. It’s still a fine retreat, covering 32 acres between Broadway, Circular and Spring streets.
If you want to call time-out for an hour and do nothing while spending time there, that’s fine. But if you want to take an hour to see the sights, here’s a dozen things to take in. We’ll go counter-clockwise from the park’s refurbished Broadway pedestrian entrance.
1. The Broadway entrance near the city information booth used to be overgrown with aging pine trees, but the Spirit of Life restoration completed earlier this summer has removed those trees and opened it up. Colorful flowerbeds and a grassy hilltop overlooking the rest of the park now greet those who enter here.
2. The Spirit of Life is spiffed up, has new plumbing and shines bronze, water gushing out of her base into a reflecting foundation and burbling from the saucer she holds aloft. Whole articles get written about the Spirit of Life, but this won’t be one of them. The memorial Katrina Trask commissioned to her husband after his tragic railroad death in 1909 turned 100 this year, but she doesn’t look it.
3. Just south of the Spirit of Life is the Civil War Memorial, dedicated to the 77th New York regiment, which was recruited from Saratoga in 1861. It was with the Army of the Potomac throughout the war, and saw very big losses at Antietam and Frederickburg. It is believed to be the only Civil War regimental monument not located on a battlefield.
4. The Duck Pond is the starting point of Spring Run Brook, which is now buried for most of its journey through the city. The small pond is one of the park’s prime attractions for children. It’s hard to know whether children stalk the dozens of ducks, or the Congress Park ducks stalk them.
5. Check out Congress Spring, the one under the big Greek revival pavilion. It was discovered in 1792 by John Gilman, a congressman from New Hampshire, and tubed in 1802 by Gideon Putnam, the village’s founder. Its water was once bottled and sold across the country. It will cost you nothing to try it.
6. At the southern end of the park, past a pond with a foundation in the middle of it, is the Katrina Trask (yes, her again) Memorial Stairway. Made of pink granite from the Adirondacks, is was dedicated in 1922 and climbs the hill to emerge behind the Holiday Inn.
7. The Canfield Casino. Like the Spirit of Life, the casino is worth a whole article, but we’ll be brief. When Richard Canfield ran it, it was the center of the city’s illegal gambling culture. Whitneys, Vanderbilts and Morgans all played games of skill and chance there in the late 1800s, as did many folks of lesser repute. Today it can be rented from the city for weddings and other events, and the Saratoga History Museum on the second floor is among the finest local history museums around.
8. From the very old to the very new: Just up the hill east of the casino is the second park entrance to be refurbished just this year. Marylou Whitney and John Hendrickson have paid for a life-size statue of the legendary thoroughbred Native Dancer, who never lost at Saratoga, to serve as a welcoming point for visitors. Fountains complete the effect. Seen by everybody approaching downtown on Union Avenue, it is easily the city’s most visible statue.
9. Next to the Union Avenue entrance is a great meadow. With the rest of the park often so busy, a great swath of empty grass is inviting, and a ridge and trees separate it from the rest of the park. At its northern end is the “devil’s chair,” which was once to be the cornerstone of an Episcopal Church, later abandoned.
10. The Italian Gardens down the hill on the Spring Street side of the park feature the reflecting pool across which the two Tritons “Spit and Spat” spew water at each other, while the statues of Pan and Meneads circle around a sundial.
11. The Congress Park Carousel attracts children of all ages. The carousel, whose horses were carved by Marcus Charles Ilions in 1904, was once a highlight of the Kaydeross amusement park on Saratoga Lake, but was dismantled when it closed. It has graced the park since 2002, and still runs. It was originally at Forest Park on Ballston Lake and later in Round Lake, so the carousel has been around.
12. The Congress Park ducks deserve their own mention. They just do.