History of Atlantic City

The indigenous inhabitants of Absecon Island, on which Atlantic City rests, were the Lenape Indians.

They gathered there in summer, traveling over the marshy Old Indian Trail from the mainland to the island to spend the warmer months. The remnants of that trail, which was five miles long, are where Florida Avenue now stands. The ocean and the bay offered wildlife, flora and balmy breezes.

Thomas Budd, an Englishman who arrived in the late 1670s, was the first recorded owner of Absecon Island. The island was given to him as part of the settlement of a claim he had against the holders of the royal grant. He was given other property as well and it was valued at about four cents per acre. Today the exquisite beachfront panorama would cost in the millions.

Hunters, Indians and settlers visited the island during the passage of the next hundred years. Among them was a man named Jeremiah Leeds who in 1785 became the first white man to build a permanent structure on the island, and he and his family were Atlantic City’s first official residents. Their home and farm, which bred cattle and grew corn and rye, was called the Leeds Plantation and it stood on Arctic and Arkansas Avenues. The tavern, Aunt Millie’s Boarding House, which was located on Baltic and Massachusetts Avenues and run by Leeds second wife, was the first official business in Atlantic City.

By 1850, the Leeds family descendants owned all but one of the seven permanent dwellings on the island. The other owner, a physician named Dr. Jonathan Pitney, along with Richard Osborne, a civil engineer from Philadelphia, funded the construction of the Camden-Atlantic City Railroad. The invasion of tourists began with the first train to arrive after a grueling two and a half hour trip on July 5, 1854. It was Osborne who is credited for naming the city while Pitney thought up the names and placements of the city streets as they remain today. Streets running parallel to the ocean were named after the world’s great bodies of water (Pacific, Baltic, Adriatic Atlantic) while the streets, which ran from east to west, would bear the names of America’s states. (Vermont, New York Avenue, etc).

Besides rail transport, people arrived in droves via boats and the city was fast becoming a bustling port town. There were many wrecks off the coast, perhaps the most tragic being The Powhattan, a vessel carrying more than 300 German immigrants, which sank in April of 1854. Many bodies washed up on shore for days afterwards, and because they could not be identified, they were buried in mass graves in several local cemeteries. At the urging of Dr. Pitney, a lighthouse was erected and turned on in 1855. It stands today over 1/2 mile from the beach but was originally located at the edge of the ocean.

In the late 1870s, a new railway, the Narrow Gauge Line to Philadelphia, was constructed to accommodate the endless stream of tourists. Grand, luxurious hotels, like The United States and The Surf House as well as smaller rooming houses sprang up all over town and Atlantic City formally opened as a tourist resort on June 16, 1880. The enormous United States Hotel boasted 600 rooms, taking up a full city block. The Showboat parking lot now stands where it once stood. It was the country’s largest hotel at the time and the spot where Ulysses S. Grant vacationed during his second term as President. By the turn of the last century, the boardwalk was four miles long, glittering with resorts that catered to the rich and famous on the east coast.

At the Brighton Hotel Lillian Russell and her diamond-studded lover, Diamond Jim Brady, were often seen cavorting along the promenade and dining in the finest restaurants.

Everything was beautiful and elegant save for the ubiquitous problem of sand. A hotel owner, Jacob Keim, and railroad conductor, Alexander Boardman, approached the City Council with the idea of an eight-foot wooden walk to be paid for by the town’s tax revenue as a solution to keeping the sand out of the hotels and railway cars.

The first boardwalk, which went up in the early 1880s was replaced with another larger one in 1888. A year later, a hurricane hit the island and destroyed the second boardwalk. The Boardwalk of today is six miles long and 60 feet wide and its planks, which are placed in a herringbone pattern, are laid on a concrete and steel substructure.

The late 1800s marked a time of growth for the new city by the sea. By 1899, nearly 2/3rds of the city’s 6,500 dwellings were cottages, albeit many were elaborate with two and three stories, beautiful interiors and landscaped lawns. According to the 1900 census, there were over 27,000 residents in Atlantic City, which began with a meager 250 just 45 years before. Amusement piers like Million Dollar Steel, which offered dance contests and side-show acts, began to appear. Some of these piers, which were built out into the ocean, were half a mile long, and featured performers like young and eager escape artist, Harry Houdini. But the most famous boardwalk act of all time ran on Steel Pier for 49 years: the high-diving horse. Tourists delighted in the sight of a horse and its nearly nude female rider leaping from a 60-foot tower into a pool of water several times a day. Amazingly, one of the riders, Sonora Carver, was blind. Her story was celebrated in the 1991 movie, “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken.” The amusement piers were magnets for tourists, but only in the summer. Extending the tourist season began in 1921 with the first Miss America pageant, which by 1940 was synonymous with Convention Hall and Atlantic City.

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