Congress Park

Saratoga's jewel began as a gloomy swamp. Digestion and regularity — not leisure — were its original purpose.

Congress Park, the city’s 33-acre public “pleasure garden,” has a surprising origin. It was created by Dr. John Clarke, owner of the Congress Spring, so that visitors would have a pleasant place to “walk off” the laxative effects of the mineral waters.

Conditions were very different before the park was created. In 1817, North Carolinian William Lord wrote to his wife, “You would be amused & disgusted to see the vast crowd at the Spring in the morning among whom are the first Ladies of the company drinking the Water, when the object is known by all the men.” (footnote 1) At that time, the sandy soil, the dust, the lack of shade trees all discouraged health seekers from taking exercise near the spring after they drank the water.

According to tradition, Congress Spring was discovered in 1792 by U.S. Rep. Nicholas Gilman, and was soon popular as an alternative to the High Rock Spring, adjacent to the Farmers’ Market on High Rock Avenue, which had been in use since before the Revolutionary War. (footnote 2)

The waters Gilman found bubbled up in what was then a swamp surrounded by gloomy pine forest and, for many years, improvements were limited to simple platforms, railings, and perhaps an awning. It wasn’t until 1823 that Dr. John Clarke, who had begun bottling the water, acquired the land. Six years later he built the first promenade, a path from the spring to the Circular Street hill, so visitors could enjoy “a healthful exercise in connexion with a morning visit at the fountain.” (footnote 3)

 

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