Welcome to Ballston Spa’s history page. Whether curiosity, or pure chance brought you here, may you leave with a greater appreciation of whichever we call ourselves: “A Strolling Village” or “A Village of Friends.” It seems both descriptions are apt and used interchangeably by residents.
When the village’s name is spoken, most people unfamiliar with the place hear, “Boston Spa.” That’s a town between Leeds and York in England. The village was christened by the state legislature by an act of incorporation on March 21, 1807. Prior to that event it was called variously, “Ballston Springs,” “Bath,” “Spa” (sometimes written, “Spaw”), or “Town of Spa or Bath.” It hardly ever was called, “Ballston Spa.”
The local area had been named “Ball’s Town” or “Ballston” after the Rev. Eliphalet Ball. A Presbyterian minister of Bedford, NY, Ball somehow was contracted to find buyers for the portion of the Kayaderosseras Patent that had been set aside to pay administrative and surveying costs. Presumably, the commissioners of the patent referred to the area Ball was commissioned to liquidate as “Ball’s." It was a fortuitous opportunity, as the Reverend’s congregation had split, and he and his followers had to find a new place to live. They created a settlement west of Ballston Lake, which they shared with newcomers, and the name, “Ball’s Town,” stuck. This all happened a couple years before the Revolutionary War.
The second word, “Spa,” was apt in 1807. A spa is more than a spring. It is a place with all the amenities of comfort, leisure, and entertainment which amuse those who ostensibly come for the invigorating mineral waters. For the next eight or ten years, Ballston Spa was one of the premier watering places in the country. It had hotels and boarding houses, billiard rooms, dances, masquerades, card games, theater, music, and, of course, hot and cold mineral baths.
Visitors following signs to the “History Museum” will encounter “Brookside” home of the Saratoga County Historical Society and one of the two Ballston Spa Hotels built in 1792. The other hotel, “McMaster House” was situated across the stream from Brookside partially in what is now Front Street. It burned in the mid-nineteenth century, and it took about ten years for the village to remove the charred remains and open Front Street as it appears today.
Within sight of “Brookside” is an eight-sided pavilion called, “The Old Iron Spring.” Despite its name, the spring is not all that old. It was drilled in 1874. But local lore insists that when it was drilled, the original nearby natural spring ceased running, therefore the newly drilled well tapped the waters of the “Old Iron Railing Spring,” and the new well could still be called, “The Old Iron Spring.” The railing no longer being needed. Mineral water continues to flow and may be freely drunk. Enjoyment of the water is an acquired taste.
A little further east on Front Street, railroad abutments can be seen.
(A pause is necessary to explain the name Front Street. The street was so labeled on the earliest (1793) subdivision map of the springs, because the owner, who was speculating to sell lots, wanted to impress buyers with a street that terminated at a waterfront.)
Most of the stonework of the embankment was done in the 1880s when the tracks were expanded. However, on the south side, a different set of stonework is visible. It is very likely that part of the abutment is the earliest piece of railroad engineering extent in the state. New York’s first railroad went from Albany to Schenectady along the pine plains. The second railroad went from Schenectady to Saratoga Springs, through Ballston Spa in 1831.
The art nouveau clock of the Ballston Spa National Bank stands in front of the building the bank purchased when it was organized in 1838. If anyone knows of another banking building that has been in continuous use longer, send a note to our village office. By the late 1830s, Ballston Spa had shed its image as a resort and began its second life as a mill town. Traveling to Waterford or Albany for banking was too inconvenient.
Entrepreneurs quickly realized Ballston Spa had something unique. The principal stream running through it, the Kayaderosseras Creek, had very high banks. Dams could hold back enough water to ensure almost year-round operation, for a series of mills winding up the creek several miles above Ballston Spa. The railroad could bring in raw material and ship out finished product. Prior to the Civil War, the material was cotton. Several Ballston Spa families became very wealthy as bankers in New Orleans.
The creek made two other fortunes. Isaiah Blood established an axe and sharp edged tool factory, which supplied the Union Army and continued for another 30 years after his death in 1870. An Englishman from Devon, George West, began making paper upstream in Rock City Falls. Local lore credits his business with developing the square bottom paper bag during the Civil War to take the place of cotton sacks. West constructed the Victorian Factory buildings on Rte. 50 by the creek.
Both operations, as well as the third major industry in Ballston Spa, a tannery, were active in the formation of Trusts, which Teddy Roosevelt made a name for himself by busting.
The Medbery Hotel began life in 1804 as the “Village Hotel.” Forty-three years and three additions later, it was sold to Stephen Medbery, who ran it for over 30 years. Regardless who has owned it since, it continued to be known as, “The Medbery.” For much of the 20th century, it was a rooming house with barbershop and bar. Its backroom was known for card games and unlucky farmers who settled their debts by turning over tenant farms. Today, it serves as an inn and spa, featuring mineral baths with water from a nearby spring.
At the foot of the street along “The Medbery,” is a small yellow house, also built in 1804. It is the last remaining structure of the Sans Souci Hotel complex. Initially conceived as the laundry for the hotel, before it was completed, it was changed into a duplex. The west side was the residence for the agent of the spa’s financier, Nicholas Low. The other side was the home of the Doubleday family for eleven months.
The Sans Souci stood on the block opposite the Civil War Monument. After it was razed in 1887, it took about 40 years for the present set of buildings to be erected. After steam and electrical power transferred industry from stream banks to cities, Ballston Spa, with its railroad, became a center for the region’s farm communities. Village stores catered to farmers who would come to town, first with wagons and later “Tin Lizzies.” The large, red brick building up the hill past Wiswall Park housed refrigerated storage, had its own railroad siding, and sent produce to feed cities down the Hudson to New York City.
The commercial building on the corner of Front and Milton was built in 1906 by the young members of the West family. They put their faith in the advanced technology of the horseless carriage and ran an automobile garage from the building. Ballston Spa was not much affected by automobiles, until the end of the depression. Benefits of working in the village paled against the wages of the American Locomotive Company and GE in Schenectady. After World War II, technology took over agriculture, and most of the small, family farmers turned to other occupations. Simultaneously, scientists and engineers at GE discovered the village as an ideal place to raise families. For the next 20 years, the village was a self-contained bedroom community. Stores, schools, library, churches, and recreation were a few blocks from home. In the 1970s, malls and the Northway decimated the post-war village fabric. Twenty years later, malls and the Northway contributed to the rise of specialty retail and a greater awareness that Ballston Spa, as one of the few intact villages in the capital region, provided a heterogeneous social mix, unlike what is was found in suburbs or cities. Ballston Spa’s current reason for existence is itself.
Around the corner, north on Milton Avenue, are several blocks of late Victorian commercial structures, like those on Front Street, containing specialty shops and restaurants. One of these buildings was constructed by Tracy Brothers as a hardware store in 1901, after a disastrous fire. Today, the building is home to the National Bottle Museum. Explaining the process and uses of glass hand-blown containers during the 19th century, the museum is a mecca for bottle collectors across the United States.
Milton Avenue is home for three of the village’s five churches, Methodist, Baptist, and Roman Catholic. The older edifices of the Episcopalians and Presbyterians are on West High Street (Rte.67). The latter have worshiped in the same sacristy since their inception in 1835. The Episcopal house of worship was built in 1862 and designed by the prestigious ecclesiastical architectural firm of Richard Upjohn. Upjohn’s daughter married a Ballston boy, whose father had been a rector of the church.
The three churches on Milton Avenue were built between 1892 and 1897. At the time, most of the congregants of these churches were storekeepers, clerks, and working families. The Baptists have the longest history in the village, dating to the 1790s. The churchyard they left behind when they moved from their first building evolved into the village’s cemetery. The current Methodist church is the congregation’s third, which was built on the site of their second, which was razed. Blood was a Baptist, West a Methodist, and the Catholics had the bank president.
St. Mary’s was organized by Irish fleeing the famine. Most supported their families by farming or working in the mills along the Kayaderosseras Creek. Isaiah Blood believed his workers should own their own homes and sold them land north of the creek. For much of the 20th century, the north end of town was primarily Irish.
Around 1900, just as the Irish were beginning to overcome the prejudices accorded to foreigners, St. Mary’s began serving Italians and Eastern Europeans. Most of the latter were farmers and lived outside the village. The Italians found work in mills and lived in homes on “The Flats,” all but within sight of their church.
Until 1957, Ballston Spa was a divided town: Irish on the North End, Italians (with a few Irish and others) on the “Flats,” and the predominantly Protestant merchants and professionals on the higher areas to the south and east. In 1957, the village population wanted a blow-out celebration of the village’s 150th anniversary. The only way to pull it off was for the whole village to pull together. It did. It still does.