It wasn't that long ago that one could visit Sacandaga Park to take in a baseball game, catch a show in the open air theater, ride the roller coaster, spend time at the midway, or take a spin to Sport Island on a miniature train. The "Coney Island of the North" had its heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and much of it was lost with the intentional flooding of the Sacandaga Reservoir in 1930. But before the delighted screams of roller coaster riders and the crack of a baseball bat became the summer soundtrack of the park, it was a peaceful wilderness area used by religious and temperance groups for camp meetings.
The quiet site along the river was known as a meeting spot for Methodists, although the Salvation Army and Women's Christian Temperance Union shared the space with them. Methodism came to the Sacandaga River Valley along with its first settlers in the late 18th century. In 1788, Samuel Olmstead, a Connecticut man, built a small cabin on the plateau above the river that would later become the thriving village of Northville. When Olmstead returned from Connecticut with his family, other settlers followed, including the Methodist circuit riders. Circuit riders were common in the early years of settlement in the United States. In sparsely populated areas on the frontier - like the settlement that sprung up along the Sacandaga River - Methodist clergymen were assigned more than one congregation, and they would ride out to serve each. The Northampton circuit was formed in 1798 as part of the Albany District. It included what is now the village of Northville, Mayfield, Northampton, Osborne Bridge (gone in the flooding of the reservoir) and Edinburg. These itinerant preachers held meetings wherever they could. The first formal church was formed in Northville in 1800 with 20 members. A meeting house was erected five years later on the corner of Bridge and Main Streets. The building was shared between Methodists and Baptists. It wasn't until 1821 that the Methodists built their own church on Main and Washington, where the First United Methodist Church now stands.
Having a church building didn't squash the popularity of camp meetings. Camp meetings have deep roots in the earliest days of Methodism in Europe, and they were especially popular among various denominations in the United States. Those settling the frontier would gather for days at a time to hear itinerant preachers, worship and take communion. Camp meetings were a major part of the Second Great Awakening. This Protestant revival movement lasted from 1790-1840 and Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian preachers played a large part in it. After the Civil War, the camp meetings gained even more popularity throughout the country. In the early 1870s, the Northville Methodists established their encampment at "the Circle" across the river from the village. Although close to Northville, the area was still peaceful woodland and provided an excellent space for a tent encampment and open air meetings. Their meetings were advertised in the local paper; a small blurb in the Intelligencer proclaimed: "Methodist camp meeting near Northville in August."
The Methodist Church in Northville is shown.
It makes sense that the Methodists were willing to share their camp space with the Salvation Army and other temperance groups. All shared a connection through the Social Gospel movement, which began in the 1870s and lasted until about 1920. The movement applied Christian ethics to social problems: poverty, child labor, alcoholism, inequality, crime, etc. Many Methodists were active in this movement. The Salvation Army's theology has its roots in Methodism. It was founded to provide for the poor, hungry, and destitute by meeting both physical and spiritual needs. The Women's Christian Temperance Union sought to rid the world of social problems through similar principles outlined in the Social Gospel movement. They followed the Greek writer Xenophon, who claimed temperance was "in all things healthful; total abstinence from all things harmful." The WCTU saw alcoholism as a root cause of larger social problems.
The railroad came to Northville in 1875 with a local short-line. It soon went bankrupt and was bought up by the Fonda, Johnstown, and Gloversville Railroad in 1881. The FJ&G began selling lots on the Circle to private owners who built summer cottages. The railroad also began the development of a park in the area. It wasn't long before the meeting grounds were surrounded by cottages and a pavilion. In her book Life in Sacandaga Park 1880-1935: The Photographs of Joseph K. Dunlop, Ellen Kostroff writes: "Stories of local history recalled an incident, the turning point in the creation of the park, of a train baggage car loaded with barrels of lager beer rolling onto the picnic grounds with its rowdy owners . . . Tales tell how the rowdiness and ungodliness of the newcomers incensed the Methodists to pack up . . . leaving the area open to the bawdy visitors, and the continued renovation of the park by the railroad . . ." The Methodists who met for prayer in the solitude of the woods next to the river were pushed out by the growing population in the area. By the 1880s, there were no more open-air meetings in Northampton. They moved their camp to a quieter spot on Round Lake.
For years, spring flooding of the Sacandaga and Hudson Rivers plagued the people of Albany. To stop the destructive annual floods, the state decided to build a dam at Conklingville and flood the valley to create a reservoir. Whole communities ended up under water, including much of Sacandaga Park. The Circle where the Methodists first gathered for their camp meetings was saved from the flood waters; it would have been located in the area that is now Circle Drive. The sounds of singing church-goers and happy laughter from the Midway are gone now, but it's easy to see why the spot was popular with everyone. The Sacandaga is a beautiful place to be.
Samantha Hall-Saladino is the Fulton County historian.