Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Wrong Time

This post is the third in a series dealing with early tourism on the Hudson ...

John Fitch was laboring away on a river that wasn’t likely to produce a good return on his investment. In contrast, Robert Fulton found an immediate niche to fill as he began to ferry the New York upper class to and from Albany. But there’s another advantage that Fulton had in 1807 that Fitch never could have foreseen in 1790.

In 1792, two different men, one wealthy and the other hoping to become wealthy, began to build two different hotels in a sodden little town called Ballston. The town had been founded in 1770 near a cluster of mineral springs believed to have medicinal properties. A few miles away were another cluster of springs call “Saraghoga” by the Mohawk.

These springs had gradually begun to gain popularity. The use of natural spring water had long been used as a treatment for various conditions, and the process was referred to as the “water cure.” The whole site had potential as a medical and social retreat, but its development was hampered two problems.

First, the accommodations were primitive. In 1790, the area was described as a quagmire without civilized facilities. The two hotel proprietors, a local named Benjah Douglas and a wealthy businessman named Nicholas Low, were each trying to remedy that by building hotels that would appeal to the gentry.

Low’s reputation and connection’s allowed him to draw business to his new hotel, named the “McMaster’s.” By 1797 the area was attracting small numbers of New York’s genteel travelers. In 1800 it changed its name to Ballston Spa to emphasize its primary draw. In 1803, Low was involved enough to build an even larger hotel in the area – the “Sans Souci” – which was America’s first large resort hotel.

But, as I wrote last week, getting from the traveling hub of New York City to Ballston Spa was frequently a long and tedious process. No direct road along the Hudson would be cut until the 1840s, so a boat ride was the only option. But before 1807, there was no regular service and no established lines. A traveler simply had to try and catch a ride on whatever boat was available.

Naturally, Fulton changed all that. Thanks to his North River Line, tourists could get to Albany reliably, comfortably, and above all, quickly. Not only did this increase the flow of tourists, but it made certain other things feasible. New types of entertainment trickled into Ballston Spa, like cabinets of curiosities and traveling players.

The steamboat and the spa had a symbiotic relationship. The growth of tourism kept Fulton busy with passengers. The passengers took rooms in the new hotels. After just 18 months of operation, Fulton had had a profit of $16,000. Fulton was really the right man at the right place at the right time.

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