One hundred and ninety-five years ago, on April 27,1825, Professor of Chemistry at Yale University Benjamin Silliman penned a letter to Harvey Loomis, proprietor of the Sans Souci Hotel in Ballston Spa.
It was subsequently printed in the Ballston Spa Gazette in August 1825, and copied in travelogues over the next several years.
Silliman was a noted geologist who had first visited the resort village at the age of 18 while attending Yale. He founded the American Journal of Science in 1818 and by 1824 when he returned to Ballston, he was one of the most well-known scientists in the United States.
“Mr Loomis – Dear Sir,” Silliman wrote. “You request my opinion of the Mineral Waters of Ballston. They are in my view, very valuable, and I can discover no serious reason why public opinion should be less favorable to them than formerly. I became acquainted with the old spring near Mr. Aldridge’s in consequence of using its water uninterruptedly, at the fountain head, for a month in the autumn of 1797.”
Harvey Loomis, who married the step-daughter of Joshua B. Aldridge, purchased the Sans Souci in 1823 from original owner Nicholas Low and had invested heavily in making improvements to the large, twenty-year-old hotel. It was the flagship hostelry of the village made famous by its springs.
“The old spring is, I suppose, surpassed by no mineral fountain in the world, as a brisk, copious, slightly saline and strong chalybeate,” Silliman wrote. “Its cathartic properties are strong and its tonic powers equally so. There is no spring either at Ballston or Saratoga which I should prefer to this. The Congress spring is also as far as I am concerned, without rival in its class but it is scarcely proper to call it a chalybeate.”
Here Professor Silliman directly addressed the elephant in the room. John Clarke arrived in Saratoga Springs in 1823, the same year Loomis purchased the Sans Souci, and immediately began developing the Congress Spring, constructing a bottling plant in 1825 in an effort to market the spring water. His success was recognized as a threat to the prominence of Ballston Spa, which had been the early leader in the competition for tourists in the area.
“Nothing can exceed the variety, copiousness and excellence of the Springs at Saratoga but those of Ballston are in no respect, except that of number and variety, inferior to them, and I trust the day is not far distant when a truly liberal feeling will, in both villages, lead to mutual commendations and an amiable rivalry in efforts to please and accommodate their guests,” Silliman wrote.
Silliman ends on a conciliatory note, but the battle had been joined and over the years Saratoga Springs became the victor, although not by the springs alone. But that is another story.
Jim Richmond is a local independent historian, and the author of two books, War on the Middleline and Milton, New York, A New Town in a New Nation with co-author Kim McCartney. Richmond is also a founding member of the Saratoga County History Roundtable and can be reached at SaratogaCoHistoryRoundtable@gmail.com.
Engraving of Ballston Springs (1817) by J. Hill.