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Atlantic City, an Early Tourism History

April 1st, 2022

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.