In 1791, the newly formed Saratoga County Board of Supervisors met for the first time at Mead’s Tavern in Stillwater, in the eastern part of the county. It was common for elected officials or committees to meet at a public house before building a town hall.
Within the next few years, when it was decided that a courthouse building and jail should be erected, the Town of Ballston was chosen for it’s central location.
Captain Edward A. Watrous donated a site on his farm for the courthouse on Middeline Road in Ballston and construction began in 1795. Court was first held there the next spring. A small hamlet grew, known as “Courthouse Hill,” it was complete with taverns, hotels and law offices. The county seat seemed to be firmly cemented at that location, but that changed in 1816.
in that year a fire broke out in the courthouse in the middle of the night. Two prisoners, Fones Cole of Northampton (held on a forgery charge) and Peter Drapoo (held as a horse thief) used a candle they purchased from the jailer (reportedly for playing cards) to set fire to their cell and escape. Two other prisoners also escaped, but a fifth prisoner, George Billings, was chained to the floor and perished in the flames.
Thereafter several towns sought to be named the county seat including Waterford, Malta and Galway. Two front runners quickly emerged – Saratoga Springs and Ballston Spa.
Ballston Spa (also known as Ballston Springs) was well known for its mineral springs and their supposed healing qualities. The powerful, land-rich Nicholas Low established the village, which was located on land he was granted in the Kayaderosseras Patent. Noting the influx of health-seeking travelers, Low built the large San Souci Hotel, carved out lots, and laid streets.
By the early 1800s Saratoga Springs was also an up-and-coming village, thanks to the mineral springs located there, and was starting to overtake the springs at Ballston in popularity. Each village assembled a group of prominent citizens who tried to convince the State Legislature that theirs was the best location for the county seat.
In a letter written by Thomas Palmer to Nicholas Low on October 31 1816 he advised:
“As the time approaches when the Legislature will fix the site of the courthouse and gaol [jail] in this county and every exertion made by our opponents to defeat us. We are desirous that nothing should be left undone that can have a bearing in our favor or counteract the efforts of our enemies to defeat us. It is suggested that one argument intended to be urged by our opponents is that a lot will be given the County at Saratoga Springs for the courthouse and gaol. Should that be the case we must be prepared for them. Will you be pleased to write to …our committee assuring them that a lot will be given the county at the village of Ballston Spa for the courthouse and gaol…”
Nicholas Low heeded the advice of Palmer and did just that, using his influence in favor of Ballston Spa as the County seat. On March 14, 1817, after a lengthy debate, the State Legislature established the seat of Saratoga County at Ballston Spa.
Following through on his promise, on July 5, 1817 Low filed a deed with the County Clerk giving the County Supervisors a lot on High Street for the purpose of building a courthouse and jail. Construction commenced later that year and was finally ready to hold court by 1819. The style of the building was essentially the same as the original building on Courthouse Hill, but made with brick. This two-story building served as the county courthouse until a new one was erected on the same spot in 1889. (The courthouse moved across the street to its present location in 1968).
Photo of Saratoga County Courthouse, built 1819.
Lauren Roberts is the Saratoga County Historian. She is co-host of the WAMC podcast A New York Minute in History, along with NYS Historian Devin Lander. Roberts co-produced the recently released documentary Harnessing Nature: Building the Great Sacandaga, which chronicles the creation of the Sacandaga Reservoir. You can reach Lauren at firstname.lastname@example.org.