Every news channel in the tri-state area, if not the entire U.S., aired minute-by-minute accounts of Superstorm Sandy's brutal march up the Eastern Seaboard. The accounts and pictures of the devastation were indelible. Weathermen and newscasters detailed the devastation: Entire neighborhoods underwater; houses washed away to sea; refugees from the storm looking wet, exhausted and shell-shocked; the famed Seaside Heights roller coaster crumbled and sitting eerily silent in the pounding surf.
Some of the newscasters though got the story wrong. Contrary to news reports, the iconic Atlantic City boardwalk was not washed away, and the city, its resorts, gambling casinos and luxury hotel rooms were far from underwater.
According to Jeff Guaracino, chief communications and strategy officer of the Atlantic City Alliance, a non-profit entity to revitalize and rebuild Atlantic City's reputation, the news reports were woefully inaccurate. “Everyone was reporting how the boardwalk was washed away, that was not true. A small already condemned section of the boardwalk, far from the resorts and the businesses that draw millions of visitors each year was washed away, but that was a good thing that Sandy did...it saved us the from paying for the demolition.”
Just days after the storm, the resorts and businesses were up and running, the entire boardwalk and city cleaned up and ready to welcome visitors. The visitors did not return however. Scared away from the news reports describing Atlantic City as a storm-ravaged wreck.
The Early Days
Atlantic City has had many ups-and-downs since the beginning. Because of its location in South Jersey, hugging the Atlantic Ocean between marshlands and islands, the area became a prime real estate destination and resort town for developers. In 1853, the first commercial hotel, The Belloe House, located at Massachusetts and Atlantic Avenue was built. The following year the city was incorporated and the Camden & Atlantic Railroad service began, serving as a direct link with Philadelphia. By 1874, more than 500,000 visitors per year took the train to Atlantic City and Dr. Jonathan Pitney, known as the “Father of Atlantic City,” was instrumental in convincing municipal authorities that a railroad to the beach would be beneficial. Pitney's vision was to develop Atlantic City into a premier health resort.
The railroad purchased land and built the United States Hotel, a sprawling, four-story structure that accommodated more than 2,000 guests. Still under construction when first opened, the hotel upon completion was the largest hotel in the U.S. with more than 600 rooms spreading out on some 14 acres.
The Famed Boardwalk
The first boardwalk was built in 1870 along a portion of the beach to help hotel owners keep sand out of their lobbies. While expanded many times, the historic length of the boardwalk was about seven miles, extending from Atlantic City to Longport, through Ventnor and Margate. By 1879, the city’s popularity led to establishing another rail line. Soon, the Philadelphia and Atlantic City Railway was constructed to ferry tourists to the resort city. Massive hotels like The United States and Surf House and smaller rooming houses sprung up all over the city.
The Origin of a Popular Confection
In 1883, salt water taffy became all the rage. Shopkeeper David Bradley is credited with the invention when Bradley's shop was flooded after a major storm, soaking his taffy with salty ocean water. He sold some “salt water taffy” to a young girl who proudly walked down to the beach to show her friends. Bradley's mother was in the back of the store when the sale was made and loved the name. So “salt water taffy” was born.
During the early part of the 20th Century, Atlantic City went through a radical building boom. Many of the model boarding houses that dotted the boardwalk were replaced with large and luxurious hotels. Some, such as the Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel and the Traymore Hotel were synonymous with luxury and became playgrounds of the rich and famous.
The Golden Age
In the 1920s, with tourism at its peak, many historians consider this decade Atlantic City's golden age. During Prohibition, became law and lasted from 1919 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 (known to us all from the HBO series Boardwalk Empire) 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 the kickbacks he took on illegal liquor, gambling and prostitution operating in the city, as well as from kickbacks on construction projects.
In November 1923, then Mayor Edward L. Bader initiated a public referendum during which residents approved the construction of a Convention Center. The convention hall, of course, was the venue where the Miss America Pageant was held for decades.
Like many older East Coast cities after World War II, Atlantic City suffered through a period of decline beset by poverty, crime and corruption. The popularity of the automobile allowed vacationers the freedom to travel and they no longer wished to stay in one resort spot for weeks at a time. Also, the advent of suburbia played a huge role. With many families enjoying their own private homes and luxuries such as home air conditioning and swimming pools, they had no desire to visit luxury beach resorts during the hot summer. But perhaps the biggest factor in the decline in Atlantic City's popularity came from cheap, fast jet service to other premier resorts, such as Miami Beach and the Bahamas.
Slots and More
In an effort to revitalize the city, New Jersey voters in 1976 approved casino gambling. Immediately thereafter, the owners of the Chalfonte-Haddon Hall Hotel converted it into Resorts International. It was the first legal casino in the Eastern United States when it opened on May 26, 1978. Other casinos were soon constructed along the Boardwalk and, later, in the marina district for a total of twelve today. Boxer Mike Tyson fought many bouts there, helping Atlantic City achieve nationwide attention as a gambling resort. Numerous high-rise condominiums were built for use as permanent residences or second homes. By end of the decade it was the most popular tourist destination in the United States.
But in 2008, Atlantic City declined once again. With the redevelopment of Las Vegas and the opening of two casino resorts in Connecticut, tourism waned.
But today, visitors are again returning, thanks to improved infrastructure, including “The Tunnel Project” which connects the boardwalk area with the marina area, the construction of a new convention center and connecting train station, the redevelopment of Atlantic City International Airport, the opening of two luxury resorts the Borgata and Revel, as well as the construction of a luxury outlet shopping district in the formerly blighted downtown.
Now what once caused its downturn, its close proximity to Philadelphia and New York City, has become an ingredient of its success. Millions of people now travel to “AC” regularly not just to gamble, but for a quick weekend getaway. And don't believe it when someone shows you a sunken amusement park and tells you it’s Atlantic City. According to Sharon Franz, director of sales and marketing of the world famous Steel Pier. “We made it through the storm fine. And we're looking forward to welcoming kids of all ages to ride our amusements.”
Down but not out, Atlantic City is up off the canvas and looking forward to a great summer season.
Liam P. Cusack is the associate editor of the New Jersey Cooperator.