The trains no longer stop there, the trolleys are gone, and only Ballston Lake’s oldest citizens can remember the popular amusement area called Forest Park.
However, the old hotel and restaurant, now known as Carney’s Tavern, is nearly 175 years old and still making memories.
“I’m not a drinker, so I don’t go there very much. But we’ll go in there for lunch every now and then and the food is great,” said 94-year-old Joe Santarcangelo, who moved from Elnora to Ballston Lake 93 years ago and continues to live on Main Street, just a few doors south of Carney’s. “It’s a very friendly tavern, and it’s always been that way. Growing up, the McDonoughs were like parents to all of us. They were very nice, and it’s the same way today.”
‘A friendly place’
Tom and Katherine McDonough ran the establishment from 1936 until 1971 and called it the Ballston Lake Hotel.
“The McDonoughs were good people, and I remember Mrs. McDonough was really a great lady,” said Mary Egan, whose in-laws moved to Ballston Lake in the middle of the 19th century, lived in the building and ran it as the Ballston Lake Hotel from 1896-1911.
“She’d be at church or at the tavern, and she’d be walking around in a mink coat with her white nursing shoes. She was something, but she was really nice.”
It’s the Carneys, Bob and Rosemary, who take care of the place these days, and they’ve done so since October of 1982. Like the McDonoughs, they’re good people who really care about the community according to the 93-year-old Egan, who’s lived just a few houses north of Carney’s on Main Street for more than 60 years.
“Bob and Rosemary really got involved in the community when they took over the place, and they really are great people,” said Egan, who wrote a book about Ballston Lake called “Billy’s Village: the Saga of Ballston Lake.” “It really is a friendly place, and they’ve done a great job.”
According to town of Ballston historian Rick Reynolds, the building that houses Carney’s dates to at least 1845 and was used as a saloon, a barber shop and a grocery store before turning into a 10-room hotel in the late 1800s called Shendahora or Shenandahora. After the McDonoughs sold it in 1971, it started changing hands every few years and operated under the names of Lord Nelson’s, Rendezvous, Cousin Bruce’s Empty Arms Hotel and the Main Street Tavern.
As Carney’s, the place is open seven days a week to serve lunch and dinner. Along with the bar, a large dining area and game room, Carney’s has two meeting rooms upstairs where several community organizations conduct their affairs. St. Patrick’s Day is a special event at Carney’s, and last year the place served 700 people and cooked 1,100 pounds of corn beef. Occasionally, and on special days like St. Patrick’s Day and New Year’s Eve, there is live music, but typically customers come to Carney’s for its friendly atmosphere and a steak dinner or just a sandwich and a drink.
“I don’t really think we had a game plan when we bought the place,” said Rosemary Carney. “We just did it by the seat of our pants and it’s worked out pretty well. It’s a wonderful, historic building, and the community has always given us plenty of support.”
Bob Carney moved to the Ballston Lake area in 1972. He worked as a machine operator at General Electric for 22 years before leaving that job in 1987, five years after he and his wife purchased the tavern.
“I had experience in bars, but not in the bar business,” joked Bob Carney. “Neither one of us had any experience, but I always liked this place and taking it over was always in the back of my mind. It was run down. It was a mess. But we did a lot of cosmetic work, and then renovated just about every room in the place. We wanted it to look like a country tavern, and of course with the name it’s going to have an Irish slant to it. I can’t help that.”
The little community of Ballston Lake, referred to as Ballston Lake Village to differentiate it from the lake just a few hundred yards to the east, was one of five settlements to pop up in the Town of Ballston during the second half of the 18th century.
Influx of visitors
It remained a quiet community throughout most of the 19th century, but in 1902 the Schenectady Railway Company built Forest Park on the southwest corner of the lake, and it’s merry-go-round, dance hall and access to the lake created an influx of visitors from all over the Capital Region.
“The trains would stop there and many people would stay at the Ballston Lake Hotel,” said Santarcangelo. “They also had these open-air trolleys in the summer that would run from Schenectady to Saratoga, and on a Friday night it’d be hard to find a seat because so many people would be coming to Forest Park. I was a youngster but I can remember. You’d go on the merry-go-round, you could take a boat and go out on the lake. We had a lot of fun.”
The life of Forest Park was a short one. In 1925, the Schenectady Railway Co. decided to sell the park, and the land was divided up into small units.
“The railway company just didn’t want to deal with it anymore, and they thought that selling the land would be more profitable,” said Reynolds. “They had built it so that people would buy train tickets and take the train to the park. And from 1902 to 1925, Forest Park really fueled the growth of Ballston Lake, as well as Ballston Spa and Saratoga. It was the beginning of the concept of leisure time in America.”
On way to presidency?
A year before Forest Park opened, in September of 1901, U.S. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was vacationing in the Adirondacks when President William McKinley was assassinated by Leon Czolgosz at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. Roosevelt had started south out of the mountains when he heard of the shooting, but then was told that McKinley was expected to recover and so returned to his bear hunting expedition. A few days later, however, McKinley’s condition worsened and once again Roosevelt headed out of the Adirondacks.
“He took the train south, it stopped at Ballston Lake, and he probably had a meal at the tavern,” said Reynolds. “We don’t know that for sure, but it’s a long trip, and the Ballston Lake Hotel was the first place in town to have a telephone. He didn’t sleep here, but he probably ate, used the phone, and then got back on the train.”
The story has been passed down through the generations by different people according to Reynolds, and while he can’t document it, he does believe it. Also, it is documented that Roosevelt and his family did come to Ballston Lake on numerous occasions while he was governor.
“He knew the Delevans, who had been a prominent Albany family that had moved out to the intersection of Route 50 and Middleline Road in Ballston,” said Reynolds. “Roosevelt and his daughter Alice, who was good friends with the Delevans’ daughter, would take the train to Ballston Lake to visit them. There is the story of Alice falling into the horse’s trough there, and her father had to pick her up and clean her off. It seems like such an insignificant little story to us, but it’s a great little anecdote and it’s a story people tell and like to hear. It’s been passed down to us, so we know that Teddy was here in Ballston Lake quite a few times, and he may have stopped at the hotel more than once.”
William Egan, Mary Egan’s father-in-law, ran the hotel at that time, and she thinks her husband, Bill, and most of his seven siblings were born in an upstairs bedroom there.
“Patrick Egan was Bill’s grandfather and he came here around 1850,” said Egan, who worked as a librarian in the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake School District for 40 years. “It was a very popular place around the turn of the century, and people would come up here from New York City on the train and stay at the hotel. There used to be a lot going on around here.”
Those days may be gone, but Carney’s remains a popular spot within that area of Southern Saratoga County.
“It’s a great place where people in our community can meet,” said Reynolds, a former history teacher at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake who in 2003 received the Outstanding Teacher of American History Award from the Daughters of the American Revolution. “It’s kind of like our ‘Cheers.’ ”