Lebanon Springs, NY, abandoned spa structures.
For millennia, the quality of our relationship to water often directly correlated to our sophistication as a society. Because water, in addition to providing life-giving hydration, spreads disease and pathogens; ergo the existence of plumbing in next-level civilizations. Pakistan’s ancient Mohenjo Daro 4,500 years ago used advanced urban planning systems to ensure sanitation in a city of 40,000, as did ancient Greece’s Keros, right around the same time.
Once our species mastered the basics of water management — for travel, agriculture, plumbing, sanitation, energy — we were able to grapple with and begin to understand some of water’s more subtle nuances.
Take mineral water. All water naturally harbors minerals like calcium, magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus (they leach into water from inorganic substances, such as the rocks found in the earth strata), but the concentration of the minerals varies region to region, and areas with mineral-rich waters have long been thought to have health benefits.
For centuries, certain areas of New York State have been sought out for their waters. Native Americans settled around mineral springs before Europeans arrived, noting that waters could be used internally or externally to resolve skin problems, digestive issues, and other ailments. Colonists learned of the springs and their “magical” healing powers (although there are no studies supporting this mythos), and by the early 1800s tourists began flocking to the effervescent waters of New York State to bathe and drink, as well as just to relax and have fun. More than 50 locations across the state flourished during the 19th century. Sadly for those areas, after two world wars, most Americans abandoned touchy-feely “water cures” for pharmacology.
Deer Park Spring in Saratoga Springs, NY, 1870. Photo: Saratoga Springs Visitor Center
Even though mineral water is generally synonymous with designer water — like Perrier, and images of glamor, Europe, swish — New York’s indigenous mineral water often bubbles out of decidedly rustic spigots and pipes (due to the very minerals that make it sought after). So with nary a designer label in sight, the Empire State’s mineral water aficionados, nevertheless, come barreling out of their cars lugging intimidatingly large containers that they plan to fill to the brim and tow home for their own health-conscious consumption.
If you live in one of New York’s mineral water regions and happen to be the parent of a young and assertive child, then you may already be aware: true mineral water has a certain earthy…funk.
“What’s that smell?” my 5-year-old asks, loudly, pinching her nose shut dramatically, as we pass by one of 21 working mineral springs in our hometown of Saratoga Springs (think sulphur, and you’ll understand). “Skunk! P.U.!” my other one bellows, urgently waving his hand in front of his face and squinting his eyes shut. Red-faced, I herd them away from the health enthusiasts filling up their gallon water jugs in Saratoga Springs and toward the Carousel in Congress Park.
Island Spouter in Saratoga Spa State Park. Photo: Gideon Putnam Resort
While Saratoga Springs is the most well-known center of water culture in New York, it is certainly not the only one. Below, our favorite places to “take the waters” now in the Empire State. (Plus one of the more than 50 defunct mineral springs locations with an especially colorful past).
Forty-five minutes south of Rochester, Dansville was a thriving center for mineral spring enthusiasts in the mid-19th century. What is now known as the Jackson Sanatorium was opened in 1854 as the Our Home on the Hillside. A hydrotherapy clinic, it attracted visitors from around the world who often sought it out as a source of relaxation and rejuvenation. Susan B. Anthony, Horace Greeley, Frederick Douglass and others came to visit and speak there. A fire gutted the main building in 1882, but it reopened as the Jackson Sanatorium a year later. In addition to offering hydrotherapy, the Sanatorium encouraged an unprocessed diet heavy on produce and grains. By 1914 however, the business was on its last legs financially, and, as of now, the site is unused and deteriorating despite several multimillion initiatives to restore it.
Springs Integrative Medicine Center & Spa. Photo: Visit Finger Lakes
The town of Clifton Springs was founded — and still runs — on the health halo imparted by its sulphur springs. The town, nestled in the Finger Lakes in Ontario County, is so dependent on health-conscious tourists, it throws an Annual Sulphur Springs Festival on the first weekend of June every year, complete with live music, talent competitions, a duck derby, and a historic fashion show (parasols!). There is one main hydro-center in town. Clifton Springs Hospital, an actual community hospital, has a spa wing, dubbed the Springs Integrative Medicine Center & Spa. Founded by Dr. Henry Foster in 1850, the spa offers a variety of holistic hydro options, many of which are complemented by traditional Western techniques including massage therapy, energy therapies, and mineral water therapies.
Saratoga Springs is one the most well-known mineral spring destinations in the country for a reason. There are 21 working springs dotting the town, several of which are focal points in recreational hubs like Congress and Spa State Park. According to town lore, the mineral-water-loving Mohawk and Iroquois tribes named the region Serachtuague, which translates to a “place of fast-moving water.” Colonialists anglicized it to “Saratoga.” Several tribes settled in the region for its allegedly restorative powers, and European settlers became aware of its alleged medicinal value at the times of the French and Indian War, which ended in 1763. In 1802, Gideon Putnam erected the first tavern for tourists near a spring, and, by the 1830’s, the Saratoga water biz was buzzing and the town was dubbed “Queen of Spas.” At the peak of the water tourism boom in the mid-20th century, four public bathhouses (two of which were built by President Franklin Roosevelt, who used hydrotherapy to combat chronic issues stemming from polio) served more than 200,000 customers a year. These days hydrotherapy aficionados who want to soak in a real, old-fashioned mineral bath can hit Roosevelt Baths & Spa in Saratoga Springs (run by The Gideon Putnam resort) or they can report to one of the many working springs to taste the waters. (Here’s a guide!)
Mineral water has been credited with curing everything from malaria to hangovers, to cancer and kidney disease. Do I buy it? Nope. But what I do buy, as often as I can, is a delightful soak in an old-fashioned tub full of Saratoga’s ache-easing water. Is it the minerals or the peace and quiet that magically soothe away my stress? Does it matter?