The closing of the Mount McGregor Correctional Facility has created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to connect Saratoga Springs to the Adirondack Park. The redevelopment of Mount McGregor could be the main driver in the success of the conservation and recreation strategy proposed for northern Saratoga County by the Open Space Institute and Saratoga PLAN.
SECOND IN A SERIES
Visitors to Saratoga Springs in the late 1800s could climb aboard a narrow-gauge train at North Broadway and enjoy a scenic 12-mile ride north to the forest-crowned summit of Mount MacGregor, the highest peak south of the Hudson in the Palmertown range of the Adirondacks.
There they found the 150-room Hotel Balmoral, built by Joseph W. Drexel, who also built the railroad. In building the hotel, Drexel moved to McGregor's Western Outlook the smaller Mountain House that Duncan McGregor built in 1876. Drexel would later offer the use of the lodge to General Ulysses Grant to complete his autobiography in the last six weeks of his life in 1885.
On December 1, 1897, the Hotel Balmoral was reduced to ashes in a blaze of mysterious origin, as reported by The Saratogian.
"The entire structure was destroyed by fire early this morning and the heavens for miles around bore brilliant evidence of the fiery fate of this caravansary on the mountain top, 1200 feet higher than Saratoga."
"Of course, nothing could be done to save it, for there are no firefighting facilities on the mountain."
Men had been at work on the building for several days, "painting and otherwise improving it." Lanterns had been used and a "fire had been kept to warm a portion of the lower floor."
"It is possible that spontaneous combustion was generated by some of the oily and turpentine rags used by the painters, but this theory cannot be proved and a good many people would not believe it anyhow."
A few months after the hotel burned, Drexel took apart the railroad and the city's most popular link to the Adirondacks was lost.
THE NEXT CENTURY
Over the years, other uses were found for the site. While the hotel was gone, the infrastructure remained and that, with new construction, would support over the next century a tuberculosis sanatarium, a veterans’ rest home, and a residence and school for the developmentally disabled. In 1976, the New York State Department of Corrections turned the complex into a minimum-security prison, which ultimately closed in 2014.
In 2017, the Empire State Development Corporation started seriously looking for a developer to purchase the 325 acres that remain surrounded by a 10-foot fence after 750 acres of forest around the prison were opened to the public as an extension of Moreau Lake State Park. ESD offered $8 million toward infrastructure improvements, but that was not enough to persuade serious developers who might be put off by the need to install a new water system and piping for natural gas, as well as the challenge of dealing with three municipalities -- Corinth, Wilton, and Moreau -- in obtaining the necessary permits
Some say there's no way McGregor will ever be redeveloped. The obstacles are too massive.
But others are hopeful, even determined. None more so than Melissa Trombley-Prosch, the Grant Cottage historic housekeeper and site curator who in 1985 led the fight to save the cottage when the National Park Service starting taking steps to close it.
"History has taught me that anything is doable if you just have a group of like-minded people who have decided that a particular choice of action has merit and is achievable," says Trombley. "All of this is achievable, but there's been no vision."
VISIONS OF MCGREGOR’S FUTURE
Enter the Open Space Institute and Saratoga PLAN. As part of a conservation and recreation strategy for northern Saratoga County they published last fall, these non-profits are proposing two new visions for the summit that would harmonize with McGregor's history and surrounding forest, lakes, and trails.
One is a museum or interpretive center that highlights the area's indigenous, cultural, and ecological history. As a model, OSI and PLAN point to the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, with its "museum park," a trail system that leads visitors through natural areas to commissioned works of art. "Designed for hiking, walking, and jogging, the unpaved natural trails allow visitors to deeply experience art and nature," the museum's site says.
But an even better model for Saratoga Springs may be that provided near Portland, Oregon by craft brewers Mike and Brian McMenamin, who in 1990 imagined a new future for a 74-acre parcel that for over a century had served as a poor farm, a jail, and a nursing home. Shuttered in 1982, the building, called Historic Edgefield, went into an eight-year period of decline that the McMenamin brothers ended with their determination to bring people together with "good beer, good food and good music" and create the "Disneyland for adults" that McMenamins Edgefield is today.
The manor that once housed the impoverished and nursing home residents is now a 100-room hotel. Surrounding it is a pitch-and-putt golf course, a fine dining restaurant, a spa, a soaking pool, a concert and event venue, a winery and vineyard, brewery, a distillery, a glass-blowing studio, a pottery studio, gardens, a pool and game hall, and a "sprawling park-like campus dotted with tiny atmospheric pubs just waiting to be discovered," reports Spirited magazine.
Would something like that be possible on Mount McGregor? Absolutely, says Jeff Olson, a local architect and planner with Alta Planning + Design who consulted with OSI and PLAN on the South Palmertown study.
"We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to connect Saratoga Springs to the Adirondack Park," he says. "We can connect more than 10,000 acres into a sustainable resource for conservation, recreation and economic development."
Properly executed, the redevelopment of Mount McGregor could be the main driver for the success of the conservation and recreation strategy that OSI and PLAN are proposing for northern Saratoga County, says Katie Petronis, OSI Northern Program Director.
"Imagine a space that's focused on recreation and appreciation of the region's many outdoors offerings would encourage trails development and appreciation of the fabulous Palmertown landscape, with its rivers, lakes and peaks. Imagine a network of trails that reaches all the way down to Saratoga Springs at Daniels Road State Forest, where it meets the Greenbelt. It would spawn bike shops, trailside eateries, brew pubs, and bed and breakfasts. The redevelopment of Mount McGregor is critical to this plan."