Exploring the History of the Iconic Canfield Casino

Step back into history as a high-stakes gambler


Story and photos by Caitlin Fitzpatrick

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The rich and famous came to try their luck at the Canfield Casino.

In the late 19th century Downtown Saratoga Springs, N.Y. was a bustling summer mecca filled with tourists, seasonal workers, and locals.  The streets were crowded with cars and lined with prosperous businesses and shops. The Canfield Casino is one of the many iconic landmarks prominently associated with the era and it still stands strong, surrounded by the rich history and beautiful grounds of Congress Park.  At its zenith, the casino heard the footsteps of many famous and rich visitors looking to take a gamble on luck.

Built in 1870, the Canfield Casino started as the Club House. John Morrissey, the original owner and operator, was an Irish immigrant who grew up in Troy, N.Y. He was also a former heavyweight boxing champion and Tammany Hall politician for William Tweed. While in New York City, Morrissey opened up various casinos, but by 1861, he was ready to move on and make his mark on Saratoga Springs. 

Morrissey knew there were some residents of Saratoga Springs opposed to the idea of illegal gambling, so to protect his new business, he enacted the rule that no locals were allowed to gamble in his exclusive club. “Rather than have someone local come in and lose all his money, he kept it exclusive,” says Jamie Parillo, Saratoga Springs History Museum executive director.

Women were also banned from the gaming tables, as gambling was thought to be too corrupt for females. 

“Rather than have someone local come in and lose all his money, he kept it exclusive.”

When John Morrissey died in 1878, the Club House entered a period of decline until 1893, when it was purchased by Richard Canfield. “Canfield kept the name of the Club House, but the press frequently called it Canfield’s Casino,” Parillo says.

Canfield had experience in owning casinos. “Richard Canfield owned a gambling establishment in New York City, which was raided and closed in 1902,” says Teri Blasko, local history librarian at the Saratoga Springs Public Library.

Under the ownership of Canfield, the club underwent a sophisticated and elegant renovation that cost the new owner nearly $1 million. 

Canfield added a grand ballroom complete with stained-glass windows in the vaulted ceilings.  Mahogany woodwork, arched windows, Tiffany stained glass, and chandeliers were also added for splendor.  The second floor of the Club House was divided into private rooms for the high-rollers and the price of chips multiplied by 100 upstairs.  “Generally the bets in the downstairs parlor started at $1,” Parillo says. “Only the wealthiest went up to the high-stakes room where the chips went for as much as $100,000, which by today's standards would be over $1 million today.”

“Only the wealthiest went up to the high stakes room where the chips went for as much as $100,000, which by today's standards would be over $1 million.”

Canfield, building to impress, also decided to renovate the grounds surrounding the Club House and created Italian gardens graced with marble statues, increasing the opulent feel. 

The Club House thrived as the Golden Age of the city in the early 20th century continued.  Civil War heroes and theater actors traveled to try their hand at a game of poker or roulette and sample the fine food.

By 19th century standards, famous people would frequent the casino, but today people wouldn’t recognize their names. “The records of who exactly was here are sketchy,” Parillo says.

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Bets in the former high stakes room went for as much $100,000.

Anti-gambling forces in the city finally forced Canfield to close the doors of the Club House in 1907.  Saratoga Springs bought the building in 1911 and renamed it the Canfield Casino. “The city, still a village at the time of purchase in 1911, purchased the casino for $150,000,” Blasko says.  Shortly afterward, the Historical Society of Saratoga Springs established the museum on the upstairs floors of the building. 

The city sought funds to renovate the casino, and in 1970 was given the first grant to begin restructuring. In 1990, another $1 million restoration project was started.  On the National Register of Historic Places, the Canfield Casino currently houses the Saratoga Springs Historical Society Museum, the Walworth Memorial Museum, and the Ann Grey Gallery.

Visitors to the Historical Society’s Museum start their visit in the first floor gallery which offers a brief history of Saratoga. The gift shop is placed in the very room that women used to sip tea in while their men gambled thousands of dollars away. Upstairs on the second floor, the high stakes room, where chips once went for as much as $100,000, is still preserved with its memorabilia intact, giving visitors a glimpse into the splendid lifestyle of a high stakes gambler. A portrait of the great John Morrissey overlooks the room.

“The records of who exactly was here are sketchy.”

Down the hall, the Fires of Saratoga museum shows the multiple fires that have occurred throughout the city over the past 100 years, while the History of Fashion museum illustrates how majestic fashion has evolved since the Golden Age of Saratoga Springs. 

The third floor has gone from glamorous private apartments to the Walworth Memorial Museum, which tells the story of New York State Chancellor Reuben Hyde Walworth and his tragic family drama that reads like a modern day soap opera.

Lining the stairways are pictures of the iconic inductees into the history hall of fame, including author Frank Sullivan, and of course John Morrissey, without whom none of this would exist. 

In its heyday, the casino was off-limits to locals and catered to rich gamblers from around the country, but today, Saratogians book it for their weddings and events using the lavish backdrop and rich history as the perfect atmosphere for a new start in life.

"The Casino usually holds two or three events a week, with weddings being their most popular event," says Betty French, the Casino Coordinator. “Usually January and February are slow,” she adds, noting that summer and spring are the most common times of year for couples to start their journey together.

The Canfield Casino was once a hotspot for taking a chance on luck with gambling, but today the rebirth of the casino has people taking a chance on love and choosing to start their new lives together at this historic landmark.

Where's your favorite historic landmark in Saratoga Springs?

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