Before gambling became legal in Atlantic City in the 1970s, it has a reputation as one of the biggest resort towns in the United States. Now, Atlantic City is one of the premier gambling destinations in the world, bringing in $3 billion in revenue. When people think of gambling in the United States, the first city that comes to mind is Las Vegas. There is no doubt that Las Vegas brings in the most money in terms of casino revenue, but Atlantic City is second. Atlantic City is also where you’ll find the iconic boardwalk, which is where most of its world-class casinos are found. The town is visited by 26 million tourists a year. However, before AC grew to be one of the biggest gambling centers in America, people loved visiting it for its resorts. AC was experiencing a Golden Age by the 1920s, which got bolstered with the coming of the prohibition era. In this article, we’ll take a look at Atlantic City through the ages, starting with its birth in the 19th century, all the way to its financial peak in the 1990s.
Back in the 1850s, the area where Atlantic City is now located showed great promise to be a resort destination thanks to its natural beauty. The Belloe House became the first hotel in the area to kick off the resort trend way before the city was even established. On May 1, 1854, AC became officially established, with Dr. Jonathan Pitney being dubbed the city’s father. Pitney was a local in South Jersey and a professional physician who wanted to make Absecon Island – a major part of Atlantic City – the biggest destination for medical retreats. Pitney was convinced that the sea air and water on Absecon Island had healing qualities.
So, Pitney, along with his associates, pitched the idea of a resort town to executives of railroad companies in Philadelphia. Needless to say, the pitch was a resounding success and gave birth to Atlantic City. Atlantic City became open to the locals once the Camden & Atlantic Railroad was constructed. Over the next 20 years, the area became more easily accessible and was visited by over 500,000 yearly visitors thanks to the increasing number of attractions. Before long, no other place in America had thriving resorts on the level that Atlantic City did. For decades, the United States Hotel was the biggest hotel in the United States and managed to be hospitable to the thousands of guests who came to Absecon Island for treatment. In 1870, the boardwalk was created by hotel owners in an effort to keep their lobbies free from sand. And until this day, the boardwalk is easily the most recognizable part of Atlantic City (even in the entire metro area). By the time the 1900s came about, Atlantic City was a booming resort town, which you can see by the video below. As you can see, people came to the town not just for medical retreats but for vacations as well.
The success of Absecon Island as a resort town continued on in the first 15 years of the 1900s. And since tourists were coming to the small town in crowds, another railroad had to be built to handle all the tourist traffic that was coming in. The Jersey Shore soon became filled with big hotels that offered all manners of entertainment – some of it was not even legal. AC became the playground of the world, but this would change with the enactment of the 18th Amendment, which kickstarted the Prohibition era (1920-1933).
Prohibition saw the banning of alcohol on a national scale. This meant that for 13 years, alcohol consumption was illegal, something that was not conducive to the thriving of Atlantic City during its Golden Age. If you are a fan of the hit TV show Boardwalk Empire, you would know that this did not stop people from consuming alcohol. The show is set during the time Prohibition was at its peak and chronicles the life of Nucky Johnson. Johnson was a real person and a political heavy weight. He cornered the crime industry during this time, controlling various illicit activities, from liquor consumption to prostitution to gambling (it was illegal at the time), during the Golden Age in Atlantic City. Johnson became so influential all the way to the state capitol, which protected home from the blowback of his underworld ventures. Because of his influence over the Republican Party, legend has it that Johnson could choose anyone he wanted to hold public office, from congressmen to even governors. You can watch all about Nucky Johson is the video below and learn about the Prohibition era as well:
Prohibition ended in 1933, which meant that people could now consume alcohol. Despite the ban on alcohol consumption being lifted, gambling still remained illegal in Atlantic City. In 1939, World War II began, and its end, while great for the world overall, would bring turbulent times for this tiny city. These turbulent times would last a while and bring Atlantic City to its knees.
After WWII ended, the economy of AC took a major hit. The first blow came from the increasing popularity of automobiles. This meant that people were no longer traveling by train as much as they used to, and Atlantic City relied on train travel to bring in the visitors. Furthermore, with people having their own means of travel, they could go to other vacation destinations like California or Miami. To make matters worse, people were not staying long in Atlantic City – they’d just come for a day and leave the next morning.
Rather than relying on a train schedule to get in and out of the city, they could come and go whenever they wanted on their automobiles. The second hit to the economy of Atlantic City came with the suburban sprawl – a consequence of post-war America. As more suburbs popped up in Atlantic City, it became less attractive for people looking for an escape from their own suburban life (the experience became too similar to the situation in which they had just recently attempted to stray from, the way in which things were done at their suburban home). If that wasn’t enough, air travel became more affordable. This meant that people now preferred to travel abroad to exotic locations for vacations. People were now going as far as Mexico – the same people that would litter the streets of South Jersey when vacation season was in full swing. By the time the 1960s came about, Atlantic City was in financial despair. Popular hotels and resorts started to close down and many of them were later demolished. The boardwalk, which was once the center of all hotel and resort activity in the city, was only left with three establishments. In the video below, you will see just how bad the situation was – the streets of the boardwalk were virtually empty.
With such a huge decline, Atlantic City needed something to bring it back from the brink of death.
1970 is when Atlantic City saw its first ray of hope. In 1976 gambling was legalized in Atlantic City after the public voted ‘Yes’ on a referendum to make gambling legal. In 1978, the first fully legal casino was opened in AC: the Resorts Atlantic City. This changed everything for the small town, considering that the only other way people could gamble legally at a casino was in Nevada. For people who lived on the east coast, this was a 2000-mile journey that wasn’t worth taking when a perfectly legal casino was within the city limits.
Over time, the city had about 15 casinos. Some of them have been closed down and some are still operating to this very day.
By 1981, the revenue from casinos in Atlantic City had surpassed $1 billion. The financial momentum saw several major resorts being opened in the city.
Throughout the 90s, Atlantic City continued to enjoy the highs that came with the rise of the casino industry. It was no longer a resort town at this point, but a destination where people could enjoy world-class gambling action. The once deserted boardwalk was now where tourists flocked to find the best casinos in Atlantic City. People were even coming from all over the world to experience the city’s casino life.
It is hard to imagine that from 1940-1970, Atlantic City experienced an economic decline that would have turned it into a ghost town. During the 90s is also when the casino industry experienced a boom in the United States. Casinos popped up from New York to Delaware and started to take the shine away from AC. However, the city still remains strong and infamous for its reputation as being regarded as a top gambling destination to this very day.