SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. (AP) — More than a century after scores of Saratoga Springs' famous mineral wells were capped in an early example of environmental conservation, a few of them could soon be flowing with naturally carbonated water once again.
A volunteer group has undertaken a project, with the cooperation of state officials, to find and restore a few of them. The effort succeeded on a recent summer day, with water shooting out of the top of one wellhead that had been weed-choked and forgotten for decades.
"That's probably the first time in 90 years that much water is coming out of there," said Richard Aichele, a member of Friends of Saratoga Spa State Park.
State officials point out the effort is limited to just a few wells total in the Saratoga park. Alli Schweizer, the park's educator, said the restoration group's efforts won't threaten the park's aquifer and are purely for historical purposes "so future generations can enjoy them."
Saratoga Springs has been known for its natural mineral springs since Colonial times, when Mohawk Indians introduced Europeans to the carbonated waters bubbling up from the ground in the Adirondack foothills. As Saratoga grew in the early 1800s, hotels sprouted to cater to visitors who traveled here to drink the water and bathe in the belief it would relieve various ailments, making "the Spa" one of America's first resort towns.
Saratoga was already a thriving summertime destination when the first organized thoroughbred races where held here in 1863, launching a tradition that attracts hundreds of thousands of fans each year.
By the early 1900s, gas companies had started drilling mineral water wells in an area on Saratoga's southern outskirts, a short distance from the two dozen or so mineral springs sprinkled around the town's main business and residential section. Within a few years, more than 150 wells were bringing naturally occurring carbonic gas to the surface, where it was bottled in pressurized metal cylinders and used for carbonated beverages such as soda.
"Our springs were basically going dry," Schweizer said.
Wealthy Saratoga residents, concerned that the area's aquifer was being depleted, began pushing the state to halt the gas-extraction operations conducted on privately owned land.
"They realized what they had here, they were influential, they applied pressure and got the job done," said Charlie Kuenzel, a retired earth science teacher-turned-tour guide whose local history tours include the springs.
In 1909, the Legislature and the governor approved legislation that eventually resulted in the state acquiring the land where the gas was being extracted, capping all but a handful of the springs. The mineral springs replenished themselves over time, and the area where most of the gas extraction occurred is now a 2,400-acre state park that's home to a performing arts center, a resort hotel, golf courses and mineral baths.
Last year, Aichele and fellow volunteer Phil Henzel began searching for some of the capped mineral springs, using old maps and by talking with park employees, one of whom led the men to the weed-covered well cap near the banks of the creek.
The park's friends group plans to build a fountain on the newly reopened spring and landscape the surrounding grounds, similar to what has been done for other nearby springs. They also hope to revive a couple of other defunct springs that dot the park.
"We're rediscovering history again," Aichele said.