Atlantic City, an Early Tourism History

People know Atlantic City today as a gambling hotspot. But Atlantic City’s history is much more interesting than a simple slot machine. Atlantic City was incorporated in March of 1854, and that same year the first passenger railroad train made its way down the new line from Philadelphia. The total trip of about 60 miles took 2.5 hours, but by the trip’s end, as the first vacationers stepped off the train and onto the beach, the era of Atlantic City tourism had begun.

After 1860, Atlantic City became one of the hottest vacation destinations in America. Its primary draw – location – made it accessible from several major urban areas, particularly Philadelphia. People from all over would flock to the city’s beaches to enjoy summer activities. At the time, Atlantic City focused its energies on being a health resort. Doctors would even prescribe the city’s “sea air” as a remedy for stress, pain, and even insanity. As the population and tourism grew, the businesses began to expand and move closer to the beach.

There was only one problem with the close proximity to the beach – the beach itself. Merchants were inundated with sand dragged, dropped and deposited in their establishments. In the late 1860s, railroad constructor Andrew Boardman proposed a solution. Along with others, he suggested a walkway that would rise above the sand and allow beachgoers to clean their feet before leaving the beach. On June 26, 1870, the plan was realized – a wooden walkway was completed that separated the beach from the rest of the city. Boardman’s Walk – as it was called – was the world’s first. The name was eventually shortened to “Boardwalk”. Plus, as an official Atlantic City “street”, Boardwalk was (and still is) always spelled with a capital B.

As demand for additional beachfront space rose, the Boardwalk grew. This expansion led to the invention in 1884 of another Atlantic City staple, the rolling chair. A canopied chair designed to be pushed from behind, it made traveling the length of the ever-expanding Boardwalk easier for wealthy vacationers.

Boardwalk real estate became a prime location. All sorts of beachside attractions sprang up, from amusement piers to sideshows to performance theaters to small vendors selling Salt Water Taffy (another Atlantic City first) and more. Steeplechase Pier, Steel Pier, Heinz Pier, the Million Dollar Pier, and others made their glorious debuts in those first few decades of rapid development.

Between 1890 and 1940, Atlantic City’s history becomes less a single chain of events, but rather a series of “oddities” and “firsts.” So much happened in Atlantic City during its heyday: presidents came to speak, magicians dazzled audiences, amusement piers came and went and came again, and countless other bits and pieces of history were made. Atlantic City had razzle-dazzle, craziness, in-your-face showiness, corporate enterprising, and everything in between.

The first picture postcards in the U.S. were views of Atlantic City in 1872. Salt Water Taffy was invented and named there around 1880. The first air-conditioned theater opened in the summer of 1896. Although Chicago holds fame for the first “Ferris Wheel,” it was in 1891 that Williams Somers built an “observational roundabout” on the Boardwalk. It was this wheel ride that was observed and improved upon by George Washington Gale Ferris for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and it is his name, not Somers’, that is today attached to the ride.

The string of “firsts” continued into the 20th century. In 1915, the first non-subsidized public transportation system, The Atlantic City Jitney, was established. The first passenger airline service made its way through Atlantic City in 1919, the same year that the term “airport” was coined. Of course, the Miss America pageant started here in 1921, and continued here for decades. The first official convention hall opened its doors in Atlantic City in 1929. For golfers, the slang terms “Eagle” and “Birdie” were first used here.

By 1944, the Atlantic City Boardwalk stretched a staggering seven miles down the coast of Absecon Island – ending in Longport, three cities south. However, in the fall of that year, a massive east coast hurricane destroyed most of the Boardwalk, many attractions and several amusement piers. The Boardwalk would eventually be rebuilt to a shorter distance of about 5.75 miles (including the Ventnor section).

The hurricane of 1944 may have been the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back for Atlantic City tourism. Commercial airline travel, popularized in the 1930s and 1940s, was making exotic destinations (such as Florida and the Bahamas) more accessible. There was less need for a local vacation destination, and Atlantic City tourism began its steady decline. By the 1960s, Atlantic City was all but dead. With almost no tourist income, high unemployment, and low population, something needed to be done.

In 1970, a bill was introduced to the New Jersey Assembly suggesting the legalization of gambling statewide as a way to boost Atlantic City’s economy. The bill was rejected and the idea dropped, partly due to pressure from protest groups against the idea of legalized gambling in New Jersey. At that point, the only state in the U.S. with legalized gambling was Nevada (established in the 1930s). Three similar gambling bills were brought to the assembly before it was finally approved in 1976, and only after the bill was modified to allow for gambling exclusively at Atlantic City, and not statewide as the previous proposals had suggested. A mere 18 months later, in May 1978, the first casino in Atlantic City – Resorts International – opened its doors. In the ensuing years, other casinos quickly followed suit, and a new wave of tourism began.