The Village of Ballston Spa, which has seen a revival in recent years from the post-industrial malaise of the mid-1900s, was known by Native Americans for its “healing” mineral springs for hundreds of years. However, Europeans did not discover it until the late 1700s.
The village had its beginnings in 1708 as part of the Kayaderosseras Patent. The boundaries of the Town of Milton form a nearly perfect square in the center of Saratoga County, comprising 20,935 acres. The roads and trails throughout town used by early settlers were the footpaths used by the Mohawk Indian tribe to hunt and fish in the summer months.
In 1771, so the story goes, some surveyors hired to calculate the boundaries of the Kayaderosseras patent were busily engaged in their duties when they spied a bubbling spring near the Kayaderosseras Creek. Little did they realize at the time that they had just discovered the first mineral spring in America, to become known as the Iron Railing Spring (for the iron railing that was installed around it to keep out animals). Its supposed healing powers soon attracted tourists from around the country.
The waters of Ballston Spa were part of what was known as the “Hudson River Slate,” encompassing the population centers of Albany, Argyle, Saratoga, and Ballston. Colonel Humphries, an officer of the Revolution, reported that the springs along the Kayaderosseras were great favorites of the soldiers, and that “the waters were in large measure substituted in the place of intoxicants, and less drunkenness existed” when the troops were in the area.
Though tourists would visit, no permanent settlement or improvements were made for years afterward. The turning point came in 1787 when Benajah Douglas arrived and built a spacious log cabin near the spring. He then purchased one hundred acres of land and erected a small hotel for visitors during their brief visits. This bit of comfort prompted more tourists to come to the area who may have balked at spending the night in the wilderness. Joshua Aldridge purchased the hotel, enlarged it, and named it “Aldridge House” in 1795, charging eight dollars per week for guests. Today the building is known as the Brookside Museum (home to the Saratoga County Historical Society).
Several more entrepreneurs followed Douglas to Ballston Spa, including Nicholas Low, a merchant from New York City. In 1803 he built a large resort hotel on present-day Front Street called the Sans Souci, which was built from plans based on the Palace Versailles furnished by Andrew Berger. It was the largest hotel in the country at the time, an indication of the village’s standing as a major tourist destination after just a few short years. The Sans Souci was the entertainment destination of distinguished visitors from all over the world – senators, governors, judges, and even presidents. Joseph Bonaparte (ex-king of Spain) was visiting there in 1827 when he received a letter that announced the death of his brother Napoleon. Other visitors included Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren, J. Fennimore Cooper, Andrew Jackson, and Washington Irving. Jacob Cohen of South Carolina wrote, “There is no place like Ballston, and no hotel like the Sans Souci, though I have visited all the famous watering places on the continent.”
For about thirty years, Nicholas Low almost single-handedly guided the development of the village. He subdivided his extensive land holdings into small parcels and laid out several streets in a grid-like pattern based on over-wide Front Street. In 1823 he deeded a lot to Saratoga County for the construction of the County Clerk’s office, thereby guaranteeing that Ballston Spa would remain the county seat of government despite the rise of Saratoga Springs in size and importance.Other springs were discovered near the original mineral spring, all having slightly different tastes and quality. A scientific writer stated “the original spring issues from a bed of stiff blue clay and gravel, which lies near a stratum of slate nearly on a level with the brook or rivulet which runs through the town.” When the Artesian Litha Spring was discovered as a ditch was being dug near Saratoga Avenue, it first gushed oil, supposedly superior to that of the Pennsylvania oil region. However, some time later the spring began spouting water every third day until it was tubed.
Although springs had been discovered in Saratoga, they were not as well-known as those of Ballston for some time. A visitor to Upstate New York in 1802 described Saratoga as “a small village with pretty accommodations near the Great Rock Spring; but the principle resort is at Ballston.”
After the construction of its grand hotels, upper-class tourists flocked to the village. Visiting in 1807, Washington Irving noted the increasing presence of women, who came not so much for health and good company as to “exhibit themselves and their finery; to excite admiration and envy.” He observed that “a sober citizen’s wife will sometimes starve her family for a whole season” in order to visit the springs in style. Becoming a center of fashion, as well as being situated with easy access from New York City via the Hudson River, were crucial factors to the success of Ballston Spa over other early spas located north of Albany.
In all, sixteen springs were drilled that attracted more and more wealthy businessmen as well as tourists. Some of these businessmen elected to remain in the area past the summer season, which would bode well for the village in the future when industrial pursuits would take on growing importance in the 1840s.
As the forests around the springs were cleared and other hotels were added, the small settlement gradually grew to become a thriving village with stores, schools, churches, shops, and boarding houses. The mineral waters were touted as being especially effective for diabetes, rheumatism, heart disease, and gout. Local physicians and practitioners routinely used the water for disease treatment. Ballston Spa’s medicinal waters and hotels placed it near the top of the list of summer destinations in the United States and earned it the nickname “America’s First Watering Place.”
The prosperity brought by the mineral springs proved to be short-lived. When spring water was discovered in Saratoga, a man named John Clarke had the foresight to bottle the water from Congress Spring and sell it around the country. The fame of the bottled water spread and soon caused the popularity of Ballston Spa to be eclipsed by Saratoga Springs. To make matters worse, several of the springs in Ballston Spa that showed so much promise of longevity failed. One account says that in an attempt to dig up and re-tube them to increase their flow, several veins were lost. Joshua Aldridge reportedly remarked to the workers who were digging up the original spring, “My house is full of boarders; you might as well burn it down and destroy my business that way as to tamper with that spring.”
Another theory was that the mills along the creek, which were to save the village and town from destitution, may have had a part in the failure of the springs. A professor of chemistry at Yale College named Benjamin Silliman wrote that the dams that were constructed along the creek for the mills had caused the fresh water to find its way through seams in the shale rocks and mingle with the sources of the mineral water, thus diluting their medicinal value.
This came at the worst possible time since tourists now had an alternative destination just a few miles away. By the time new drilling had opened the springs back up again it was too late to bring back the crowds from Saratoga, a thriving city that had added other attractions to solidify its standing as the number one tourist destination in New York.
Even if the springs had not failed, a region that derives its income solely on tourism is subject to the economic conditions of the day as well as seasonal factors. Since the tourism season generally ended on September 1, there was very little activity in the village for over half of each year. If Ballston Spa only had the springs to ensure prosperity, the area would have long ago lost a significant part of its population. Fortunately, the town had the Kayaderosseras Creek to fall back on. The stream flows from the north in a southeasterly course, falling rapidly in elevation.
Although the Kayaderosseras doesn’t seem like it could provide enough energy to power so many operations, it was much larger in the past than it is now, and the dams that were maintained by the mills created several huge ponds that today can be scarcely imagined when observing the creek in person. Several mills were erected by the early 1800s, mainly near Ballston Spa and Rock City Falls. General James Gordon built one of the first mills in Milton Center around 1786. He also erected the first sawmill in Middle Grove (in the Town of Greenfield, just north of Rock City Falls). By 1813 there were eight grain mills, four carding mills, a woolen factory, and two iron forge factories.
Hezekiah Middlebrook built the first dam across the Kayaderosseras, and in 1830 erected a mill nearby later known as the Blue Mill. Jonathan Beach and Harvey Chapman built a woolen mill at the future site of Island Mill. That same year, Seth Rugg established a large spinning wheel factory in Milton Center, later to become a tannery.
In 1832, perhaps the most influential event in the village occurred when the Saratoga and Schenectady Railroad was built right through Ballston Spa. This spurred even more industrial development, particularly the axe and scythe factories of Isaiah Blood, which were located just north of the village in what became known as Bloodville. These large factories employed hundreds of people and shipped tools around the world.
These industries, along with the establishment of several boarding schools and dependable incomes from the county seat attorneys, led to a second period of prosperity. Ballston Spa even formed its own bank, which was rare for the time, at its current location on Front Street.
During and after the Civil War, the pulp process was perfected in which paper could be inexpensively made from wood pulp. The vast forests of the Adirondacks led to the construction of dozens of paper mills along the Hudson and Kayaderosseras rivers.
Prominent among these were the collection of mills owned by George West. Born in Devonshire, England in 1823, he immigrated to the United States in 1840 and found employment at a large paper mill in Massachusetts. Twenty years later he moved to Ballston Spa and began working at the Pioneer Paper Company in West Milton. In 1861 he leased the Empire Mill (located a few miles north of Ballston Spa in Rock City Falls) using $4,000 in savings. The high quality of the paper that was manufactured there caused a surge in demand for West’s products and allowed him to expand at a rapid pace.
To meet this demand, he built Excelsior Mill next door to Empire in 1866, and established his residence across the street. Four years later he purchased and refurbished Pioneer Mill, then rebuilt two mills in Middle Grove at a cost of $100,000. Scarcely pausing, he then purchased and remodeled Eagle Mill in Craneville, a small settlement north of Bloodville.
Upon the death of businessman Jonas Hovey, West acquired all of his property in Ballston Spa, which included three cotton factories, two woolen mills, a mansion, and forty tenement houses. He moved into the mansion and converted three of the mills into paper mills, one into the manufacture of wood pulp, and the third began producing paper bags. He subsequently became the largest manufacturer of his specialties in the world, shipping perhaps 100 million paper bags per year and earning him the nickname “The Paper Bag King.” He was also the largest employer in the town’s history, with over five hundred people working for him in 1890.
West was not the only entrepreneur who established large industries in the village. In 1868 Horace Medbery and Henry Mann leased the Blue Mill from Mann’s father and greatly expanded it. The mill then became known as the Glen Paper Collar Company and produced paper collars. The company used the entire output of the paper mill run by Mann and Laflin two miles up the river in Factory Village. In 1875 the factory produced 21 million paper collars and five million paper cuffs. These efforts stimulated the growth of the “north end” of the village, which had up to that point been undeveloped and contained only a few residences and idle cotton mills. Unfortunately the paper collar fad died out in the mid-1870s.
All of this activity along the Kayaderosseras River led to the construction of a small electric railroad in 1896. Beginning at Bath Street in the village, it made its way past the Bull’s Head tannery, crossed Prospect Street to serve the Union Mill complex, then struck north-west along the river to serve the factories of Bloodville, Cranesville, Milton Center, Rock City Falls, and Middle Grove. Freight from these mills was shipped to an interchange track with the Delaware and Hudson Railroad near Middlebrook Avenue.
The beginning of the end of these once thriving works occurred at the turn of the century, when industries began consolidating into large national companies, then known as “trusts.” Soon after the death of George West, all of his mills were purchased by the “Paper Bag Trust” of the Union Bag and Paper Company. The Isaiah Blood tool factories were purchased by the American Axe and Tool Company, while the mammoth Samuel Haight tannery was snapped up by American Hide and Leather. While the latter survived into the 1960s, the paper mills and edge tool factories were shut down by their corporate owners within a decade of their acquisition.
A few other industries made up some of the void left by the closure of Ballston Spa’s most venerable mills. The Bischoff family purchased the former Union mill and operated a chocolate factory that survived past World War II. The Ballston Refrigerating Storage Company occupied a large brick building on Low Street, while Davison and Namack operated a successful foundry across town formerly run by the Uline brothers.
Thanks to these industries and Ballston Spa’s continued designation as the county seat, the village weathered the Great Depression far better than many other communities. The tannery, chocolate factory, and several clothing mills alone employed over a thousand men and women. Other residents found employment at the factories of General Electric and the American Locomotive Company, located in nearby Schenectady.
Hard times finally fell on the bustling village in the 1960s and 1970s when two of the largest clothing mills, the chocolate factory, and the tannery all shut down. Still, with the county seat and a few industries still operating, most notably Tufflite Plastics in the former Ballston Refrigerating Company building, the village retained most of its population as well as its civic spirit. This was aided by the revival of its old competitor, Saratoga Springs. Overflow tourists, home buyers, and renters commuting to Saratoga, Albany, or Schenectady found Ballston Spa’s quiet residential streets and quaint business district to be a welcome alternative to surrounding cities, a sentiment that continues to this day.
About the Author
Timothy Starr grew up in nearby Washington County and moved to Saratoga County soon after graduating college with degrees in business administration, accounting and history. Although he has spent his working career in accounting, his hobby has involved researching the history of Saratoga, Albany, and Schenectady counties. Fascinated by the Capital District as it was in the nineteenth century, he served on the Brookside Museum’s Board of Directors and authored fifteen books over a period of ten years. The subjects of greatest interest include the region’s inventions, industries, and railroads, as evidenced by such books as Railroad Wars of New York State, Lost Industries of Saratoga County, and Great Inventors of New York’s Capital District. Other books detailed the inventions and industries of Ballston Spa, as well as the lives of George West and Isaiah Blood. He currently resides in Glenville but retains a love of Saratoga County history, particularly his old stomping grounds in Ballston Spa.