Saratoga Springs wouldn’t be what it is today if John Morrissey hadn’t liked racing horses, and he and others hadn’t had a rather ruthless willingness to do whatever it took to entertain the wealthy and the masses alike.
History might have been different, too, if the Mohawks hadn’t thought so well of Sir William Johnson that they showed him their secret medicinal spring at High Rock in 1771. The British lord of the wilderness, of course, spilled the secret.
But it was a Massachusetts native named Gideon Putnam who bridged the gap between those two, turning Saratoga from a wilderness settlement with a spring in it into a village formed around serving visitors.
His name lives on in the state-owned Gideon Putnam Hotel and Conference Center at Saratoga Spa State Park.
“Gideon’s by far the visionary for Saratoga,” said Charlie Kuenzel, a retired high school teacher who with fellow retired teacher Dave Patterson runs Saratoga Tours.
They gave an entertaining talk on Putnam in a standing-room-only meeting room Thursday at the Saratoga Springs Public Library.
Putnam was born in Sutton, Mass. — near Worcester — in 1763, and married a woman named Doanda Risley from a well-to-do Hartford family when he was 19 and she was 16.
When he and Doanda arrived in Saratoga in 1789, he had given up on a lumber mill in a remote corner of Vermont near today’s Middlebury, moved west, and then been flooded out of a new home at Bemis Heights, near where the Battles of Saratoga were fought.
At Saratoga, Gideon started lumbering and milling the local white pine for shingles and staves (the narrow boards that barrels, pails and ladder steps were made from.) A couple of sales trips to New York City and he was rich — probably for real, and certainly by the standards of people living in near-wilderness.
Putnam saw the natural springs that surrounded him as an attraction — and thought Saratoga could exploit its mineral springs for profit, just as the village of Ballston Springs down the road was already doing.
In 1802, Putnam built the first local tavern and boarding house — a three-story building the rest of the community found “pretentious,” according to several accounts, and wags called “Putnam’s folly.”
As it turned out, the people without his vision were the fools.
Putnam laid out a street grid around what is now Broadway and Congress streets, opposite the entrance to today’s Congress Park. Patterson said the story goes that Broadway’s wonderful width — 120 feet — was the breadth needed to easily turn a horse-drawn wagon load of lumber. Putnam donated land to the community for a church, school and cemetery.
The streets were laid out so that the mineral springs would bubble up in the middle of them, Patterson said. Their use was to be free.
“The idea was that no one would own them. That’s key to his vision. He saw the springs as having genuine medicinal power,” Kuenzel recounted.
Enough people bought into the healing powers of the free springs that a bigger hotel was soon needed, and in 1811 Putnam started work on “Congress Hall,” which would eventually take up a whole block at Broadway and Spring streets. It was while working there that Putnam fell from a scaffold — took what emergency dispatchers today call a “long fall.”
He didn’t die right away, but never recovered. On Dec. 1, 1812 — 200 years and two weeks ago — Putnam died. Patterson and Kuenzel said he was the first person to be buried in the cemetery he had donated, a burial ground that can still be found on Union Street, hidden behind Congress Plaza.
Gideon and Doanda had nine children, including a son said to be the first white baby born in Saratoga. Putnams would continue to be influential in town for decades, owning the Congress and Union hotels until 1864, when a new owner renamed the Union the Grand Union.
Trivia: Phila Street is named after one of Gideon’s four daughters, and Washington Street is named after his son Washington, not the president. (Presumedly Washington Putnam was named after the president, though.)