An ode to Atlantic City.
Stories of America’s first resort town. (#Day41)
America had a resort town in early pre-mass-westward expansion and pre-consumer-airplane days. And it was located in New Jersey, not Florida.
Atlantic City, New Jersey — this was the home of America’s first resort town.
As this nostalgic tourism focused YouTube video from 1951 shows, Atlantic City once had a heyday:
We are flying over a well known eastern city, that is remarkable because manufacturing is almost non-existent. A city who’s primary business is the entertainment of millions. Atlantic City, often called “The Vacation Capital” of the nation…
….Here is a picture of one of the most picturesque skylines in the world, unique because these massive structures are built directly on the sand, with most at the edge of the tumbling surf.
Once a year, eyes turn towards here for America’s Miss America pageant… The visitors, lucky enough to be here during “Miss America Week” is impressed by the spirit of this contest that has spread the fame of Atlantic City and glorified the fame of the American Girl.
Atlantic City, after all, has hosted over 50 beauty pageants, numerous air shows featuring the Blue Angels, casinos built by Donald Trump, an outlet mall, a massive 4-mile boardwalk, the Revel Casino, a train that connected directed to America’s Capital (New York City), an Arena League Football team, and even a Democratic National Convention!!!! (source):
The city hosted the 1964 Democratic National Convention which nominatedLyndon Johnson for President and Hubert Humphrey as Vice President. The convention and the press coverage it generated, however, cast a harsh light on Atlantic City, which by then was in the midst of a long period of economic decline. Many felt that the friendship between Johnson and Governor of New Jersey Richard J. Hughes led Atlantic City to host the Democratic Convention.
The City had survived the Prohibition age, and even thrived during it. According to Wikipedia:
The 1920s, with tourism at its peak, are considered by many historians as Atlantic City’s golden age. During Prohibition, which was enacted nationally in 1919 and lasted until 1933, much liquor was consumed and gambling regularly took place in the back rooms of nightclubs and restaurants. It was during Prohibition that racketeer and political boss Enoch L. “Nucky” Johnson rose to power.
Prohibition was largely unenforced in Atlantic City, and, because alcohol that had been smuggled into the city with the acquiescence of local officials could be readily obtained at restaurants and other establishments, the resort’s popularity grew further. The city then dubbed itself as “The World’s Playground”.
Nucky Johnson’s income, which reached as much as $500,000 annually, came from thekickbacks he took on illegal liquor, gambling and prostitution operating in the city, as well as from kickbacks on construction projects.
During this time, Atlantic City was under the mayoral reign of Edward L. Bader, known for his contributions to the construction, athletics and aviation of Atlantic City. Despite the opposition of many others, he purchased land that became the city’s municipal airport and high school football stadium, both of which were later named Bader Field in his honor. He led the initiative, in 1923, to construct the Atlantic City High School at Albany and Atlantic Avenues. Bader, in November 1923, initiated a public referendum, during the general election, at which time residents approved the construction of a Convention Center. The city passed an ordinance approving a bond issue for $1.5 million to be used for the purchase of land for Convention Hall, now known as the Boardwalk Hall, finalized September 30, 1924. Bader was also a driving force behind the creation of the Miss America competition.
The story started way before this, however. English colonialists settled on Abescon Island in 1695, and build a road known as King’s Highway from Philadelphia to the closest geographical beach, they ended up heading 60 miles southeast to Abescon Island, a swampy and ocean facing sand-bar on the outskirts of the New Jersey coastline.
In 19th century America, English settlers made up the majority of the island. Many of the homes were owned by descendants of Englishman Jeremiah Leeds. As Barbara Kozek writes:
“By the year 1850, there were seven permanent dwellings on the island, all but one which were owned by descendants of Jeremiah Leeds. Dr. Jonathan Pitney, a prominent physician who lived in Absecon, felt that the island had much to offer, and even had ideas of making the island a health resort but access to the island had to be improved. Pitney, along with a civil engineer from Philadelphia, Richard Osborne, had the idea to bring the railroad to the island. In 1852, construction began on the Camden-Atlantic City Railroad. On July 5, 1854, the first train arrived from Camden after a grueling 2.5 hour trip, and the invasion of the tourists had begun.”
Osborne has been given credit with naming the city, while his friend Dr. Pitney thought up the plan for the names and placements of the city streets which remains today. Streets running parallel to the ocean would be named after the worlds great bodies of water, Pacific, Atlantic, Baltic, Mediterranean, Adriatic, and Arctic, while the streets which ran east to west would be named after the States.
Visitors to Atlantic City didn’t only arrive by train. Atlantic City was becoming a bustling seaport. But along with the increasing number of sailing vessels, came an increasing number of tragic wrecks off the coast. One of the most tragic was the sinking of the Powhattan, a vessel carrying 311 German immigrants, which sank on April 16, 1854. For days, bodies washed up on the shoreline. Because it was impossible to identify the dead, 54 bodies were buried in a mass grave in the cemetery at the Smithville Methodist Church, and 45 bodies were buried in Absecon. At the urging of Dr. Pitney, a lighthouse was erected in 1854, and turned on one year later. The lighthouse, in the Inlet section of the city, was originally at the edge of the ocean, but it now stands over 1/2 mile from the beach.
By 1878, one railroad couldn’t handle all the passengers wanting to go to the Shore, so the Narrow Gauge Line to Philadelphia was constructed. At this point massive hotels like the United States and the Surf House, as well as smaller rooming houses, had sprung up all over town. The first commercial hotel the Belloe House, located at Massachusetts and Atlantic Ave., was built in 1853, and operated till 1902. The United States Hotel took up a full city block between Atlantic, Pacific, Delaware, and Maryland (the current site of the Showboat Parking lot). These grand hotels were not only impressive in size, but featured the most updated amenities, and were considered quite luxurious for the time.
There were beautiful hotels, elegant restaurants, and convenient transportation, but the businessmen of Atlantic City had one big problem to contend with…SAND. It was everywhere, from the train cars to the hotel lobbies. In 1870, Alexander Boardman, a conductor on the Atlantic City-Camden Railroad, was asked to think up a way to keep the sand out of the hotels and rail cars. Boardman, along with a hotel owner Jacob Keim, presented an idea to City Council. In 1870, and costing half the town’s tax revenue that year, an eight foot wide wooden foot walk was built from the beach into town. This first Boardwalk, which was taken up during the winter, was replaced with another larger structure in 1880.
On Sunday September 9, 1889, a devastating hurricane hit the island, destroying the boardwalk. Most of the city was under 6 feet of water, and the ocean met the bay at Georgia Ave. The Boardwalk of today is 60 feet wide and 6 miles long. Its planks, placed in a herringbone pattern, are laid on a substructure of concrete and steel. Steel railings are in place to keep visitors from falling off to the beach below, and in accordance with an old City Council ordinance, hotels, restaurants and shops are kept on one side of the boards, with amusement piers on the other.
On Weds. June 16, 1880, Atlantic City was formally opened. With fanfare the likes few in the area had seen, a resort was born. By the census of 1900, there were over 27,000 residents in Atlantic City, up from a mere 250 just 45 years before. The first public school was opened in 1858 at Maryland and Arctic Ave. Before this, mainlanders were sent over to teach the island’s children. By 1883, the city had built its first school on Texas Ave., at a cost of $25,000.
The next twenty-five years saw many firsts in the city. The First National Bank of Atlantic City was opened on May 23, 1881, and a little over a year later in July 1882, the first use of electricity, a street light in front of Keuhnles Hall at Atlantic and South Carolina Ave., shown bright. The Atlantic City Beach Patrol opened in August 1881, posting strict 9am to 5pm bathing hours. By the next season, there were 20 guards on duty. The Atlantic City Hospital opened Nov. 30, 1898, while the public library opened Jan.31, 1900. Trolley service began in the city in 1893, extending out to Ventnor in 1900. The trolleys ran till 1955. Atlantic City’s famous Jitney service started up in 1915, with a ride around town costing just 5 cents.
The late 1800’s were a growth time for the city. Nearly 2/3rds of the city’s 6,500 dwellings in 1899 were cottages. These cottages were elaborate 2–3 story private homes, many the summer homes of prominent doctors and businessmen from Philadelphia. Beautifully coifed lawns and magnificently decorated interiors made these homes a symbol of the glory days of the city. At the same time, along the boardwalk, amusement piers began popping up. With names like Million Dollar, Steel, Iron, etc., the piers of Atlantic City were a major draw. Everyone could find some sort of entertainment to meet their tastes from the Diving Horse, Dr. Couney’s Premature Infant Exhibit, and marathon dance contests to side show acts. Despite the variety of draws to the city, one issue remained…how to extend the tourist season past summer. That question was answered by a 16 yr. old girl from Washington in 1921 who was the first Miss America. The pageant, which was held intermittently from 1930–1935, became synonymous with Atlantic City when it began being held at the Convention Hall in 1940.
Atlantic City became “the” place to go. Entertainers from vaudeville to Hollywood graced the stages of the piers. Glamorous Hotels like Haddon Hall, The Traymore, The Shelburne and The Marlborough-Blenheim drew guests from all over the world. Atlantic City’s future seemed bright, until World War II. After the war, the public seemed to stop its love affair with The World’s Favorite Playground. Possibly because of the public’s access to national air travel, the shift of the population westward, the general deterioration of the city, or a shift in the public’s taste for more sophisticated entertainment, Atlantic City lost much of its shine; and most of its tourists.
With the passage of the Casino Gambling Referendum in 1976, Atlantic City began an upward battle, not unlike one it had started two hundred years before, to use the glorious resources it has been given by nature, to make it once again a world renowned tourist Mecca.
Fascinatingly, Atlantic City was home to two of the largest hotels in America. The Traymore Hotel and the Shelburne Hotel were immaculate, modern, and swanky for their respective time.
Resorts in Atlantic City flourished throughout the 1910's-1940's, before eventually being destroyed in the early 1970’s. As Leo B. Schoffer stated:
People from the teeming inner cities — whether they were Jews or Italians or Irish or African Americans — could get on the train and escape, so Atlantic City became a prime vacation spot, with each ethnic group claiming its area of beach or town. “It wasn’t really exclusive in that sense, but you just would naturally gravitate to where people of your kind were,” he said.
In 1929, (again) during the prohibition, Atlantic City played host to one of the first and largest organized crime conferences in America. Known as the Atlantic City Conference, mobsters from New York, New Jersey, Chicago (including Al Capone) and Philadelphia all convened to discuss issues of the time. As Wikipedia reads:
The conference started off with an apparent embarrassing incident for some of those invited who tried to check into the first hotel Nucky Johnson had them registered, namely at the exclusive Atlantic City Breakers Hotel along the Boardwalk, which then was restricted to white Anglo-Saxon Protestant clients (in later years, the Breakers Hotel catered to a mainly Jewish clientele, becoming known as “The Aristocrat of Kosher Hotels”). Once the hotel’s management found out multiple guests were trying to check in with Anglo Saxon aliases, some delegates were refused admittance. Subsequently Johnson heard about the problem and rushed over to the hotel to mitigate the situation. Al Capone being himself screamed at Nucky Johnson for not making the proper arrangements and a loud argument ensued between the two gangsters while the others watched and hoped they would not come to blows. Suddenly Johnson who was taller and heavier than Capone pushed him into a limousine and ordered every one to follow him. They headed for the Ritz-Carlton and Ambassador Hotels and when Capone reached the hotel he ripped several framed paintings and photos off the walls of the hotel and started to throw them at Nucky Johnson. The others concentrated on keeping Al Capone calm and quiet for the time being.
For the first three days there were a constant round of parties at the hotels with Nucky Johnson supplying plenty of liquor, food and girls for entertainment. For the guests who brought their wives or girlfriends, Johnson provided the women with fur capes as gifts. Meyer Lansky who was the new bridegroom and guest of honor received the Presidential suite at the Ritz Hotel, with a constant supply of champagne for him and his wife Anna.
There were several important items to discuss among the attendees such as constant competition for imported and bootleg liquor profits among the gangs, what to do about the liquor business if or when Prohibition ends, greater investment in gambling operations and what to do about the Chicago violence problem. The Atlantic City delegates conducted their more serious discussions and business, privately in conference rooms atop the Ritz and Ambassador Hotels. Not all the meetings were held in a room around a long table, some discussions were held out in the open, with the delegates taking their socks off and rolling up their pants for walks along the beach, on the sand and in the open air. This made the Conference no great secret, with local newspapers carrying photos of Al Capone and some of the other prominent delegates as they cruised down the Jersey shore boardwalk and beaches, dipping their feet into the water.
Important decisions were made to stop competing with each other during the remainder of Prohibition and cooperate in pooling their resources to maximize profits and develop a national monopoly in the illegal liquor business. One of the most important discussions was what to do when Prohibition ended. The bosses decided to reorganize themselves and their gangs into cooperative organizations, investing in legitimate breweries, distilleries and liquor importation franchises. By making investments in the legitimate liquor business and by owning nightclubs, bars and restaurants to distribute the liquor and maximize profits, this gave the Syndicate some security against the repeal of Prohibition.
The delegates held discussions about taking a larger interest in illegal and cooperative gambling activities such as bookmaking, horse racing and casinos. The New York and Chicago representatives laid out a plan to tie in the national wire service for horse racing bettors with the Daily Racing Form and to lay off bets throughout the United States. This idea was introduced to the conference delegates after Al Capone ran into Chicago’s Moses Annenberg who controlled the mob that enforced distribution of William R. Hearst’s newspapers in the Chicago area. The Families in New York and Chicago would oversee and direct operations for this cooperative and very lucrative venture. New York bosses, Frank Costello and Meyer Lansky were chosen as directors to coordinate the operations along with Chicago representatives. New York’s future layoff king and gambling czar Frank Erickson was chosen to oversee the organization of the operation along with Chicago’s Moses Annenberg. Chicago businessman and underworld associate Moses Annenberg was not originally invited to the conference, but after running into Capone, the well known Annenberg was most likely invited to confer with the leaders on business matters concerning the national race wire.
It was agreed by the conference delegates that investments in the legitimate liquor business and gambling was the way to offset the loss of profits from the end of Prohibition and discussions to divide the country into exclusive franchises and territories for the bosses and their gangs were started at the Atlantic City Conference.
Another important topic was the ongoing violence and bloodletting that was occurring in Chicago. The underworld wars in Chicago and to some extent New York, had brought about a public and media outcry on law enforcement to stop the violence. There had been added media and law enforcement attention and this was placing pressure on underworld rackets and operations around the country. Most of the pressure was due to the recent St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago. With former Al Capone boss and mentor Johnny Torrio taking the lead and Charlie “Lucky” Luciano and the other delegates backing him up, Capone was chosen as a sacrificial lamb to ease the heat brought on the underworld and its leaders. Al Capone was convinced after much debate and refusal to allow himself to be arrested on a minor charge and sent to prison for a short period of time, deflecting the media and law enforcement pressure for the good of the whole underworld. After the conference was concluded, Chicago underworld boss Al Capone and his bodyguard Frank Rio went to Philadelphia where two friendly cops arrested and charged them with carrying a gun. Al Capone and Frank Rio were sentenced to a year in prison, but were released and back in Chicago after several months.
The Boardwalk was also an Atlantic City icon. Once travel infrastructure was in place for vacationing by the 20th century, the Boardwalk had flourished into a mainstay of Abescon Island. Once air travel became popular in the 1960’s-1970's, Atlantic City needed to look for ways to re-invent itself:
The casinos in 1978 changed everything. Mom and pop shops were driven out of town, and mass entertainment was ushered in, Vegas style:
The tourist business, too, had withered in Atlantic City, with planes to take tourists places that trains never could, and the opening of the Garden State Parkway, which spread the beach trade up and down the New Jersey coast. By the time casino gambling came in 1978, the Jewish-oriented businesses, from food to clothing, had either moved to nearby towns or closed up. Casinos and related businesses were corporate, not family based, and little today resembles the small merchants who dotted the main shopping avenues and the boardwalk.
Media such as “American Hustler” and “Boardwalk Empire” are showing the centrality of the city in American history. Few outside of the east coast remembered Atlantic City until these shows.
See this New Yorker article about Atlantic City for more information about the city’s past.
When I posted in the “South Silly” Facebook group, my cry to action for Atlantic City was met with trepidation:
Though cars and planes have challenged it, time and time again the city has tried to evolve with the times with mixed results.
After all, the town once had a minor league baseball team that played at Sandcastle Stadium, known as the Atlantic City Surf. They played independent league baseball from 1998–2009. Then, the team folded.
Atlantic City— Philadelphia’s long forgotten child::
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