When Saratoga Springs became a city in 1915, Walter P. Butler was the first mayor, having survived trans-Atlantic travel with a knack for booking the wrong boats at the right time.
In 1912, the already well-known lawyer-about-town booked European passages for his family aboard three different ill-fated cruise ships, according to a contemporary newspaper account.
The first time, Butler bought tickets for the spanking-new ocean liner RMS Titanic, sailing out of New York, on what would have been its second voyage. But of course the Titanic, coming from England to much fanfare, never made it past Newfoundland.
“The staterooms on this boat had been selected and the passage money paid when the news came that she had gone to the bottom,” the Saratogian reported on June 17, 1912.
Apparently undaunted by a maritime disaster that claimed the life of wealthy John Jacob Astor IV and at least 1,500 others, Butler booked the family passage on the RMS Carmania. The Carmania, however, suffered a fire that knocked her out of service temporarily.
Still undaunted, the Butler party booked rooms on the RMS Lusitania. The Saratogian story was to the effect that the Butler party, including Walter, his wife, their two sons and a friend, was leaving for New York that day to board the Lusitania.
There were reports, though, that the Lusitania was having trouble with one of its turbines. It apparently sailed, though it was the beginning of what Cunard Lines official history now recalls as a series of problems with the engines that led to the state-of-the-art liner being laid up for months.
The Lusitania is best known, of course, for its demise. It was torpedoed by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915, just miles from the coast of Ireland. About 1,200 people never made it to Liverpool.
Most of the victims were civilians, but the ship was carrying rifle cartridges and shell casings that would have supplied British and French troops. Some commentators have said it was a legitimate wartime target, though others said it wasn’t. Either way, the sinking outraged the American public, stoked anti-German sentiment and made America’s entry into World War I a couple of years later probably inevitable.
Butler, meanwhile, took the European tour without dire consequences for the family, came back and was elected mayor of Saratoga Springs in 1915, a year in which culture flourished in the Spa City. The Beaux Arts trolley station that is now the Saratoga Springs Visitors Center opened on Broadway, and Lady Rotha won the Travers.
Among the mayor’s first acts was to dedicate Daniel Chester French’s Spirit of Life sculpture in Congress Park, a gorgeous winged statue that is today undergoing a much-needed restoration.
Butler had been born during the Civil War, to a father prominent enough to have earned mention in Nathaniel Sylvester’s landmark 1878 “History of Saratoga County.” James P. Butler was a lawyer, district attorney and county legislator in Essex County who moved down to Saratoga County to open a law practice in 1857.
During the Civil War, Butler was given the rank of captain and appointed provost marshal for a district headquartered in Schenectady, overseeing the drafting of young soldiers to go away and fight for the Union cause.
Sylvester says the elder Butler paid an enlistee $900 to serve as a surrogate recruit for his infant son. The man did not survive the war.