The Grand Central Hotel was among the finest places to stay in Saratoga when it opened in the summer of 1872 — a worthy rival along Broadway to the mammoth Grand Union and United States hotels just down the street.
But casual students of Saratoga history won’t have heard of it. The reason is a reminder that fire, in its destructive power, shaped American cities in the second half of the 19th century.
“It was so grand, and the story is so tragic, it is one of my favorites,” said Dave Patterson of Saratoga Tours, who talks often on the city’s history.
Just as today’s Chicago grew from the ashes of the Great Fire of 1871 and contemporary San Francisco arose from the conflagrations caused by the 1906 earthquake, the Grand Central was erected on the barely-cooled earth beneath the Crescent Hotel fire.
The Crescent was among several properties that burned at Broadway and Congress Street, right across the street from Congress Spring Park, in 1871.
Undaunted, owner Charles R. Brown, an optician and jeweler by trade, went into partnership with Dr. Robert Hamilton — one of the village’s most-respected medical men — to build a new hotel on the site, where the Saratoga Springs Visitors’ Center now sits.
Their vision was grand, and so was the reality: The Grand Central could handle up to 1,000 guests at a time and had its own private mineral spring. The rooms on the east side offered views down into Congress Park, where the Canfield Casino had just been built a couple of years before.
Robert Joki’s book, “Lost Saratoga: Images of Victorian America,” has some pictures from the Grand Central. It shows wide, Greek-columned porches where tourists who were in town to gamble and for a little upstate relaxation would gather around Adirondack chairs to listen to outdoor concerts. Its entrance stairs curled up from the corner of Broadway and Congress, inviting anyone turned away from the Grand Union just across Congress Street.
Somehow, considering it must have been a massive undertaking, the partners got the new hotel built and had it opened by the end of July 1872. Part of the trick to it was stretching finances to the breaking point.
The newspapers would later say Brown and Hamilton ran into money trouble. The property was sold, taken by creditors, and sold again. Some of those owed money placed liens on the furniture.
Still, the Grand Central operated in the summers of 1873 and 1874, closing for what turned out to be the last time in early September 1874, with the racing done and the nights getting cool again. On Oct. 1, disaster struck in the form of wood combustion, and by all accounts it struck in broad daylight.
“About 11 o’clock yesterday morning a man on Hamilton Street, passing the Grand [Central] hotel, discovered smoke issuing from the roof of the south wing, containing the dining room,” an unnamed “special correspondent” to the Troy Daily Times wrote the next day.
It’s a shame we don’t know who the author is, for the Troy paper’s account provided a wealth of crisp detail — the alerts for more firefighting help telegraphed to Troy, Fort Edward and Glens Falls, only to be countermanded when it was thought the flames would be controlled. The countermand was premature, as it turned out, since fire erupted again under the steep Mansard roof, and some observers thought it erupted in more than one place at once.
There were strong wind gusts that day, and both the Congress Hall and Grand Union hotels were at risk from flying embers. Furnishings from the Grand Central were hauled out into the street and stacked up in the park, the newspaper account says.
The owners’ loss was estimated at $400,000, or about 8 million of today’s dollars. The paper said insurance coverage totaled somewhere between $200,000 and $250,000.
Blame for the blaze was put on “some malicious person,” and they may have had their motives.
“It is rumored that many people who worked on the building when it was built have not yet received their pay, and that some unknown person may have burned the building for revenge,” the account states.
It’s unclear whether anyone was ever arrested, but the fire remains a memorable one — though just one among dozens that have struck hotels and commercial buildings in the city.
Local antiques collector Minnie Clark Bolster — now in her early 90s, a legend and treasure in her own right — brought a pitcher from the Grand Central to a presentation she gave Thursday at the Saratoga Springs Public Library. It’s there I first learned the sad story of the hotel.
Stephen Williams is a Gazette reporter. The opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. He can be reached at 885-6705 or firstname.lastname@example.org.