The ghosts of casinos past

The Saratoga Springs History Museum occupies an 1800s building once billed as the finest casino in the world.
The Saratoga Springs History Museum occupies an 1800s building once billed as the finest casino in the world.(file 2001/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Saratoga Springs, N.Y., 1867: Gentlemen, it is going to be magnificent. The finest casino in the world. A mansion, almost a palace, modeled on the great casinos of Europe. The high-stakes gambling room will attract the rich, the famous, the glamorous: Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain. Along with gambling, the casino will be a centerpiece for glittering entertainment. Leading actors and singers will come and perform. There will be a convention center, catering to political parties and business groups. New hotels will be built, including the biggest hotel in the world. Fabulous shopping and restaurants, too.

Listen, we need to do something to reinvent ourselves, to build our city up, to boost our local economy. Saratoga used to be a society place, a resort that attracted a lot of Southerners, but of course the recent war stopped all that.


The casino is our answer. It will augment the racetrack, create new jobs, and attract new people in search of leisure and excitement. And it will pump millions of dollars into our economy.

Saratoga Springs, 1894: We’re making the casino bigger and better. Bringing in a world-class chef. Extending credit to gamblers so they can borrow money and gamble even more.

Celebrities like Diamond Jim Brady, the actress Lillian Russell, and the famous gambler Bet-A-Million Gates are regulars. Conventions held here will include the American Car Builders Association, the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court, and the New York State Undertakers Association. Is it a little tawdry? Sure, but it’s all good fun. Never mind that journalist Nellie Bly wrote of Saratoga, “Crime is holding a convention there, and vice is enjoying a festival such as it never dared approach before.”

Saratoga Springs, 1952: The casino has been closed for 40 years. The glamorous celebrities and gamblers have moved on to Havana and then Las Vegas. With its economy based almost entirely on gambling, Saratoga is in the midst of a long, slow decline. The convention business has dried up. The huge hotels have closed. Some of them have burned down; others have sat derelict. There’s been no major private development downtown since before World War I. By 1952, when the last big hotel is torn down, half the main street is vacant. All along Broadway you see unpainted buildings, empty storefronts, empty lots. “Saratoga is dead and doesn’t know enough to lie down,” according to Melvin Heimer, the town’s leading historian.


Saratoga Springs, 2014: Today the old casino is a museum. For five bucks you can walk up the shabby grand staircase into the high-stakes room, where a mannequin in an 1890s bartender costume, with a TV screen for a face, will welcome you and offer you a drink and a club sandwich and a room upstairs for the night, in a taped loop that plays over and over and over. In a nearby glass case, Lillian Russell’s ancient underwear is on display.

Saratoga Springs is prosperous again, with a more balanced and sustainable economy than it’s ever had before. Thoughtful planning, architectural and environmental preservation, and socially useful investments have made the difference. The downtown has been revitalized with a mix of residential and business development. Tourism is big again. The racetrack, which operates for a six-week summer season, is still a major attraction; but tourists also come for the arts (since 1966, Saratoga has been the permanent summer home of the New York City Ballet, and the Philadelphia Orchestra is also in residence every summer).


Today, walking through the downtown, you can see all the layers of Saratoga’s boom and decline and revival: the flamboyant Victorian survivors of the town’s heady and troubled gambling era, and the new housing and commercial buildings that fill the holes left by the years of decline. The city has put itself back together brilliantly – but it’s taken decades.

Massachusetts, 2014: Cities and towns are considering whether or not to stake their economic futures on a casino. Is the short-term infusion of excitement and cash worth it if the cost might be long-term ruin? It’s a complicated question — but before we gamble on the future, maybe we should take a good long look at Saratoga’s past.

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her latest book is “The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story.’’