Spa Opening Day 2012: Who the heck is James Marvin?

James Marvin made his first posthumous appearance at Saratoga Race Course in the fourth race on August 9, 2008.  It is unlikely, though, that that was Marvin’s first appearance at the track known as the Old Spa.

Marvin was born just outside Saratoga in 1809, moving to the Spa City in 1828. Within three years, he would become the proprietor of the United States Hotel, one of Saratoga’s grandest, located at Broadway and Division Street.

Marvin was more than a hotelier, though; his obituary called him “one of the best-known citizens of Saratoga,” and in his 73 years here, he made his mark in railroads, in banking, in politics…and in racing.

United States Hotel, ca. 1870. New York Public Library.

In 1845 he was elected supervisor of Saratoga by the Whig party, and he later became a state Assemblyman. He was elected to Congress in 1862 and re-elected in 1865 and 1868; in his 1878 History of Saratoga County, New York, Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester lavished praise on Marvin, saying that he executed his political duties “with honor and credit…” and that “…while in Congress he co-operated earnestly with the Republicans in securing those measures rendered necessary by the destruction of slavery…”

He went on, “It is said that the interests of his district were more thoroughly attended to during his services in Congress than under the administrationof any other member who ever represented it in that body…A working member rather than a speech-maker, keeping aloof from all partisan and personal contentions.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if New York had such exemplary representation now?

A founder and president of the First National Bank of Saratoga, Marvin also has something to offer to today’s banker types, according to Sylvester:

When [the bank’s] profits became large [Marvin and his brother] did not selfishly retain the stock, but divided it among other business men of the village.

Marvin was said to be instrumental in establishing the trotting course here in 1847, and when the Saratoga Association was formed in 1863 to run the new Thoroughbred meet, Marvin was one of its first members, becoming a director and eventually its president, a position he held from 1877 to 1891, when he was 82 years old.

Not all of Marvin’s life was charmed. On June 18, 1865, the iconic United States Hotel was destroyed by fire, along with Marvin House and some of the cottages associated with the hotel.

Cottages at the United States Hotel, ca. 1875. New York Public Library.

Porch at United States Hotel, ca. 1870. New York Public Library.

Though only two Thoroughbred racing meets had taken place, decades of renown as a resort had brought visitors to Saratoga, many of them taking up residence in the hotel, enjoying the vistas of Broadway from its splendid porch.  With the hotel’s destruction, the face of Broadway would be forever changed.  A year later, a Times reporter would note, “Saratoga looks more sadly this year than it did the last, when its thousands of visitors missed, as they reached the familiar ground, the smiling face of the old United States Hotel…”

Though the hotel was rebuilt, the fire ended Marvin’s association with it.

A Times writer identifying himself as “C.V.S.” wrote elegiacally and beautifully of the loss of the hotel…and of all that the United States had lost in the previous four years. It’s easy to forget that a month before John Morrissey inaugurated his Thoroughbred meet in August of 1863, 50,000 Americans died at Gettysburg.

Just two months before the United States Hotel burned, the Civil War ended, leaving wounds that would take long to heal. C.V.S. sees, perhaps, in the destruction of the hotel another rift with the past, but also a chance for healing and reconciliation. He is worth quoting at length, from June 1865:

The visitor to Saratoga, this year, will find, on stepping from the cars at the depot, his first view startling as well as saddening.  A mass of blackened and unsightly ruins covers the spot on which the grand old pile of the world-renowned United States Hotel stood, its spacious open portal, a few feet from where the cars stop, inviting the newly-come to enter, through shaded and picturesque avenues, and enjoy its unstinted hospitalities. 

The disaster will give a rude shock to many a memory. For years and years all parts of the country, to say nothing of the Old World, had their representatives congregated here in the midsummer time. The cosy cottages which were wont to shelter many a “misguided Southern brother’s” family, are all in ashes, save one, which, from the extreme western corner of the old inclosure, looks out upon the scene of desolation with a woebegone, disconsolate air, most pitiful to see. Possibly but for this disastrous burning, sundry of the said “misguided” had revisited this year these cosy nests, reviving memories both pensive and pleasant. There is plenty of room for them yet. A cordial welcome awaits them among their former haunts, provided they come in the loyal, fraternal spirit which all true Northern souls are anxious to encourage, and stand ready to reciprocate. Saratoga waters are good to bury prejudices in, not less than to reawaken and strengthen old associations and loves. Let the wanderers of a few years, therefore, not hesitate to return.

So may it be. The land after all furnishes no place where a month may be more pleasantly and profitably spent, in the Summer’s fervid pressure. The waters are not less a joy, than a veritable health-restoring power; while the adjuncts of repose and relaxation, of pleasant dinners and delightful walks; of siestas beneath balm-breathing trees, and of agreeable companionship with those one loves to meet, and can rarely meet in such freedom from care, as here, unite to make the days passed at this retreat, among the brightest that come to cheer us.

 Since writing part of the above, I have learned that several families from the South, the avant couriers of a large influx from the regions most war-scarred, have engaged rooms here, with the view of enjoying again a luxury long debarred. This points not only to peace, but fraternity. The land longs for the latter, to confirm and complete the former. Both established, and the cup of the people’s joy is full.

One hopes that James Marvin was among those able to find solace in the racing of 1865, following his devastating loss. He had years of service before him, and by all accounts, lived a full and happy life in the town that he loved.  His obituary tells us that “He…was of such excellent physique that at a reception given in celebration of his ninetieth birthday….he told his friends that he saw no reason why he should not become a centenarian.”

James Marvin didn’t make it to 100; he died at age 92 and is buried in Saratoga’s Greenridge Cemetery, at the top of the hill, with graves of his family nearby.  Wrote Hotaling, “He had presided over the inauguration of racing here in 1847,” and 161 years later, the New York Racing Association brought him back, giving him a richly deserved spot at the Spa.


Quoted and consulted 

FROM SARATOGA.;  Ruins of the Late United States Hotel…” New York Times, June 30, 1865

Death List of a Day,” New York Times, April 26, 1901. (James Marvin obituary)

History of Saratoga County, New York.” Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester, 1878

New York State’s prominent and progressive men: an encyclopaedia of contemporaneous biography, Volume 3.” New York Tribune, 1902.

Our Summer Resorts:  Saratoga Springs.”  New York Times, July 12, 1866.

The United States Hotel and Marvin House Destroyed.” New York Times, June 19, 1865

The Fire at Saratoga.” New York Times, June 23, 1865.

Hotaling, Edward. They’re Off! Horse Racing at Saratoga. Syracuse: Syracuse University        Press, 1995.

Photos from New York Public Library digital collection, used with permission. Click here for other images of the United States Hotel.








5 thoughts on “Spa Opening Day 2012: Who the heck is James Marvin?

  1. Ahh. To be remembered by Teresa Genaro: So thorough and so satisfying. Thanks for bringing James Marvin back to life and enlivening our sense of Saratoga history. Well done!

  2. Great story. That’s quite a proboscis on Mr. Marvin’s etching! Can recall Russ Harris, as a guest of Harvey Pack’s Paddock Club telling all assembled that Saratoga had been home to people playing the horses even as the Civil War raged. Some in the crowd seemed astounded. The first thing I do each year when I arrive is walk out to the rail, turn around to face the grandstand, and raise a silent toast (Diet Coke) to all those who came before. It really is hallowed ground in a lot of ways. Hoping The James Marvin sees many more editions.

  3. Thanks, everybody. Digging around for the details of Mr. Marvin’s life was fascinating, and as is so often the case with racing, the articles show how much the sport was intertwined with the rest of society. I’ll bet that there’s a lot more out there about him. Really interesting man, and I’m so glad that others out there like this stuff, too.

  4. Pingback: 2015 Belmont Derby Day Stakes Preview | Picks & Ponderings

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