Thursday, 15 August 2019 14:40

History of Saratoga - Geology of the Mineral Springs

By Charlie Kuenzel | History
Columbian Spring. Image from the George Bolster Collection. Columbian Spring. Image from the George Bolster Collection.

To truly understand the beginning of Saratoga Springs as a village you must understand the importance of the mineral springs in our development. A real understanding of the mineral springs is anchored in the understanding of the local geology.

Most people that visit the city today are not huge fans of the taste of the mineral springs when they try them for the first time. Having grown up in Saratoga Springs, my family and I always loved the taste of the springs, but I understand mineral water has a taste that you need to get accustomed to before saying you enjoy it, if ever. In 2019 some people say they only like the spring that dispenses water near the Auto Museum in the Spa State Park. That spring is not an example of a true deep sourced mineral spring in the city but rather a fresh water spring that draws its water from the upper hundred feet of another aquifer.

In order to better understand the deep sourced true mineral springs, we need look at the geologic history and therefore go back millions of years in Earth history. Approximately 490 million years ago the area around Saratoga looked very different than it does today. We were covered by a beautiful tropical ocean basin that became shallower as you traveled to the west toward Galway to eventually form the shoreline of this ocean and as you moved east toward Vermont it got deeper. Mountains further to the west were eroding with streams and rivers bringing sediment from that erosion process to the ocean for deposition. These deposited sediments would eventually harden to make varieties of sedimentary rock that would cover this entre area. Rock types like sandstone, limestone, dolomite, and shale were all deposited over millions of years in very thick layers in the Saratoga area. Most of these sedimentary rock types will hold rain water in their layers and act as a storage system or aquifer in the ground. The last layer to be deposited was a layer of black shale. Shale is a non-porous rock that will act as a protective cap over the other layers below.

This deposition process was stopped when the ocean receded as the area rose in elevation. Over millions of years as tectonic forces in the earth’s crust pushed on the rock layers it caused earthquakes to fracture those rock layers. Those fractures can be found as faults all around Saratoga. A very large fault called the McGregor Fault produced Mt. McGregor and continued south and branched to form the Saratoga Fault which is the main geologic fault running through the city that produced the mineral springs. The Saratoga Fault is categorized as a “normal” geologic fault. To understand a normal fault, picture a large block of material that is under pressure and breaks in the middle to produce two separate pieces. Then picture one of the two pieces rising and the other sinking down relative to the break or crack. This is the shape of a “normal” fault. Now picture Broadway in Saratoga Springs. The break or fault runs the length of the street. The break caused the west side including Broadway to rise and the east side to sink relative to each other. As a result, we see all the streets on the east side of Broadway such as Lake Avenue, Caroline Street, Phila and Spring Streets all go down in elevation from Broadway, therefore go down the face of the fault. This displacement is best seen in the rock cliff found in High Rock Park behind the 9/11 Memorial. Because of this fault all mineral springs are found on the east side of the fault.

This fault provided the break in the rock layers to allow the water trapped in those rock layers to rise to the surface as natural mineral springs. The Mohawk enjoyed the waters from these naturally occurring springs for hundreds of years before European settlers arrived with the technology to drill more mineral springs. By 1900 we had reached an apex in the number of springs in the city of Saratoga Springs with the number at 203. Many of these springs were pumped to extract carbon dioxide gas from the water for use in soda fountains in big cities. This abuse caused many of the original springs in the city to go dry. State laws passed in 1908 restricted the use and number of mineral springs to just 17 today. This restricted number allowed the aquifer over time to build back the necessary ground storage to provide for a stable supply for future use. 

Many geologists today have wrestled with the analysis of why the mineral springs of Saratoga Springs are so unique. Our mineral springs are some of the highest naturally carbonated waters found in North American as well as some of the most highly mineralized “cold” water springs on the continent. The problem of carbonation has not been solved. The source of carbon dioxide gas is hotly debated but not resolved. Some claim the gas is from very deep-seated volcanic sources, while some think it’s a chemical process that provides it.

In the area of mineral content, we know heat helps to dissolve material in water as seen in cooking or in “hot springs.” Because our waters are cold and emerge from the ground at a consistent temperature of 52-54 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, that also presents a problem for discussion. While coming to the surface cold, the mineral water brings with it very large amounts of dissolved minerals from the ancient rock layers below. These minerals are what gives the Saratoga mineral springs their unique taste and possible health benefits. Our waters contain trace amounts of iron, iodine, cobalt, lithium, chromium, zinc, calcium and magnesium as well as many electrolytes. Our mineral waters do not contain sulfur in any reasonable amount and therefore cannot be identified as sulfur water.

Yes, our mineral water is unique and probably not in high demand because of its taste, but it helped to supply a need for visitors in the 1800’s. It was mineral water that acted as the spark that brought people to our city and helped it to become the number one resort in the United States in the 19th century.

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