Located in Atlantic County, on Absecon Island along the New Jersey Shore, Atlantic City is a popular resort community and tourist destination. Millions of people travel to Atlantic City each year to walk the boardwalk or visit the city’s many casinos.
Throughout its history Atlantic City has always been a resort community, and Absecon Island has always been a popular destination for travellers. Indeed, people visited the Atlantic City area before the city was established and before America even existed.
The first people to live on Absecon Island, in the place where Atlantic City would eventually stand, were the Lenni-Lenape Indians. This tribe would spend their summers on Absecon Island enjoying the area’s abundant fishing and trapping, before returning to the mainland for the winter.
The Lenni-Lenape Indians also likely gave the Island its name, with “Absecon” coming from the Indian word “Absegami” meaning “little water”, likely referring to a small creek on the island.
Thomas Budd, an Englishman, was the first person to own Absecon Island. He arrived in Atlantic County in the 1670s, and acquired the island as a settlement of a claim that he had against the holders of the royal grant on the land.
It would be another 100 years before the island would see any permanent residents however. Jeremiah Leeds, an early settler, built a home and farm for his family in 1785. The Leeds home was the first permanent structure to be built on the island by a white man, and the Leeds family are considered to be the first official residents of Atlantic City.
The Leeds Plantation raised cattle and grew crops until Jeremiah’s death in 1838, at which time his second wife established Aunt Millie’s Boarding House. This tavern, which sat where Baltic and Massachusetts Ave intersect today, was Atlantic City’s first true business venture.
A number of the Leeds children went on to become important figures in the early history of Atlantic City as well. Chalkey S. Leeds became Atlantic City’s first mayor in 1854, and his brother Robert B. Leeds was the first postmaster for the city.
By 1850, the population of Absecon Island had expanded somewhat, and seven permanent buildings had been constructed. However, all of these buildings but one were owned by the Leeds Family.
Dr. Jonathon Pitney, a man who would later become known as the “Father of Atlantic City”, also lived on the island at this time. He had arrived on Absecon Island in 1819 to set up his medical practice, and could see the enormous potential of the area as a resort community. He set to work at improving the accessibility of the island throughout the 1840s and 1850s.
Dr. Pitney worked with civil engineer Richard Osborne – the man who is thought to have given Atlantic City its name – to bring the railway to Absecon Island. Construction on the Camden-Atlantic City railroad began in 1852, and by 1854 the first trains began to arrive in Atlantic City. With the construction of the railway came an influx of people, and Atlantic City began to rapidly expand.
Dr. Pitney devised the plan for the placements of the streets of Atlantic City and their naming scheme around this time. The streets in Atlantic City that ran perpendicular to the Atlantic Ocean (east to west) would be named after the States, while the streets that ran parallel to the ocean would take their names from other great bodies of water.
This unique naming system would later become the inspiration for the properties in the American version of the popular Parker Brothers board game “Monopoly,” all of which are named after the streets of Atlantic City.
Dr. Pitney also played a large role in the construction of the Absecon Bay Lighthouse in 1855. He had urged the United States Lighthouse Service to consider the construction of a lighthouse for nearly a decade, due to the hazardous waters that surrounded Absecon Island that had been responsible for many lost ships and lives.
Just a few of the ships lost around Absecon Island included the Ayrshire, the Louisa, the Nile, the Ann, and the Frankfort. So many deaths occurred in the waters off of the island, that the area earned the nickname of “the Graveyard Inlet”
One of the most tragic of these shipwrecks occurred in 1854, as the Powhattan, an immigrant vessel containing over 300 Germans sunk off the coast of Absecon Island. In a gruesome testament of the need for a lighthouse, bodies, including many women and children, began to wash ashore for many days afterward. The corpses could not be identified, and were buried in a mass grave located at the Smithville Methodist Church.
The continued efforts of Dr. Pitney, coupled with the wreck of the Powhattan, finally lead to the construction of the Absecon Inlet Lighthouses in 1855. The lighthouse was successful immediately in saving lives, and no ships were lost in its first year of operation.
The lighthouse continued to operate, shining its beacon – visible for 19.5 nautical miles from the shore – until 1933, when it was decommissioned after over 70 years of service.
Travellers could now more safely visit Atlantic City by sea and rail, but they would have to wait until 1870 for the completion of the construction of the first road from the mainland. Travellers would pay a $0.30 toll to travel that first road, and would journey from Pleasantville across to Atlantic City.
The Railway was expanded later in the decade to compensate for the large increase in traffic as more and more people flocked to the island. The Narrow Gauge rail line was built in 1878 to try and fulfill some of this demand. This expansion to the railroad, consisting of fifty-four miles of track, was laid in only 98 days.
Travellers to Atlantic City also needed someplace to stay, and, by the 1880s, Atlantic City had begun to teem with hotels. The first of these, the Belloe House on Massachusetts and Atlantic Ave, was constructed in 1853, and would continue to be in operation until 1902. There were also huge and luxurious hotels such as the United States Hotel, which took up an entire city block between Pacific, Atlantic, Maryland and Delaware Ave, as well as many smaller boarding houses.
The Atlantic City Boardwalk, one of the defining landmarks of the city, was built in 1870. Being so close to the shore of the island meant that sand had become a major problem for the local hotels, as well as the railway. The city therefore asked railroad conductor Alexander Boardman to design a way to keep the sand away from the hotels and railcars.
Boardman and Jacob Klein, the owner of a local hotel, pitched to idea of a boardwalk to the City Council in 1870. Later that year, and at a cost of nearly half of the town’s total tax revenue, an eight-foot wide boardwalk was built from the beach to the town.
This first boardwalk would serve Atlantic City until 1880, when it was replaced by a much larger structure just in time for the official opening of Atlantic City on June 16, 1881 saw the opening of the First National Bank of Atlantic City, as well as the opening of the Atlantic City Beach Patrol, which quickly expanded to include 20 lifeguards by 1882. The city built a school located on Texas Ave in 1883 to replace the first public school on the island, which had been built in 1853 so that children would not have to be sent to the mainland to attend classes.
Amusement piers, with names such as Steel, Iron and Million Dollar, began to be constructed along the boardwalk on the opposite side from the shops, hotels and restaurants, as per the original City Council ordinance regarding the boardwalk.
These piers included a wide variety of entertainment possibilities for the visiting tourist, including sideshow acts, diving horses, boxing cats, and some more macabre attractions such as Dr. Couney’s Premature Infant Exhibit.
Atlantic City was hit by a severe hurricane on September 9, 1889 that left much of the city under nearly 6 feet of water, and destroyed the 1880 boardwalk. The boardwalk was reconstructed in the cleanup from the disaster. Today the Atlantic City Boardwalk is 6 miles long and 60 feet wide, and has been built on a solid substructure of steel and concrete. Railings are also in place along the edges of the boardwalk to ensure the safety of all visitors.
According to the 1900 census, Atlantic City had grown to a population of over 27,000 people. This statistic underscores the extremely impressive growth of the city, especially considering that the population of the city had been a mere 250 people only 45 years earlier.
Atlantic City continued to draw tourists into the city throughout the early 20th Century, however the city was concerned with the fact that their tourist season was restricted to the summer months.
The Miss America pageant was created to address this problem. This extravagant event, originally called “The Atlantic City Pageant” was first held in Atlantic City in 1921. The pageant would become an important part of the City’s image when the event began being held regularly at the Atlantic City Convention Hall in 1940.
The Miss America Pageant would continue to be held each year in Atlantic City for the rest of the 20th Century, until pageant organizers decided to relocate the ceremony to Las Vegas in 2005.
Atlantic City continued to grow, and continued to attract more and more visitors throughout the early 20th century. Glamorous hotels, and fabulous entertainers from both vaudeville and Hollywood characterized Atlantic City in the years leading up until World War II.
However, Atlantic City, like the rest of the east coast of the United States, was darkened during the Second World War. The presence of enemy submarines off of the coast meant that attractions such as the boardwalk and even the lighthouses had to be completely dark during the twilight hours, lest they become a potential target.
The years after the war saw a distinct decline in Atlantic City’s popularity. This was likely due to a number of factors, including wider public access to air-travel, the fact that the population of the United States was continuing the shift to the west, and, probably, most importantly, the fact that Atlantic City itself had begun to gradually deteriorate and fall into disrepair.
Atlantic City hosted the Democratic Convention in 1964. This convention, which nominated Lyndon B Johnson for President, cast a very negative light on Atlantic City, as the press coverage generated by the event showed a city faced with severe economic and social troubles. In particular, the inlet area of the city had become extremely impoverished by this point, and crime was increasing.
Tourism continued it’s severe decline for another decade, and Atlantic City’s economy continued to be severely depressed with little hope for improvement without drastic action.
The process of rebuilding Atlantic City, and restoring it to its status as a popular tourist destination began in 1976, with the passage of the Casino Gambling Referendum. The referendum made casino gambling legal for the City of Atlantic City, and the first legal casinos in the eastern U.S. began to open in 1978.
The first of these casinos was the Resorts International, which opened its doors on May 26. Many more casinos would come and go over the next 28 years, and twelve casinos, including the Trump Taj Mahal, Caesar’s Atlantic City, and the Atlantic City Hilton are in operation today.
Despite the construction of the casinos, the revitalization of the city, and the dramatic increase in tourism in the last 30 years, many significant challenges remain for Atlantic City.
Poverty and crime remain two major concerns for the city, as they have not improved as much as they should have with the large amounts of money flowing into the city from the casinos and other tourist attractions.
The Casino Reinvestment Authority was created in 1984 and required that casinos contribute a certain percentage of their profits back into the community. It was hoped that this money would help to revitalize some of the more poverty-stricken areas of the city, and, hopefully, help to curb some of the city’s crime problem.
The Authority has been very controversial however, with some in the gaming industry saying that it places an unfair burden on the local casinos, and that the tourism brought in by the casinos will revitalize the community without government intervention.
Today, over 40,000 people live in Atlantic City. The city also sees over 35 million visitors a year, making the city one of the most visited communities in America. However, these statistics also show that the majority of tourists are only making a stop in Atlantic City on their way to some other destination – only 25% of casino visitors actually book a hotel.
The city has therefore begun to think of ways to reinvent itself as a true destination, with more to offer than just gambling. This process has involved the revitalization of old communities and the construction of new convention facilities.
The hope is that Atlantic City can be transformed from a “casino town” to a “home town”, that visitors will want to spend a few more days enjoying.