In the days before air conditioning and widespread car ownership, it offered ocean swimming, a boardwalk and many amusements. Large hotels were built and filled with vacationers from New York and Philadelphia.
Here is a 1910 photograph.
Hre is another from 1915.
Along the way, the city became famous for many things. In 1921, the first Miss America pageant was held in Atlantic City, which still hosts the event (returning last year after a seven-year hiatus in Las Vegas.)
Here is a photo of the first contestants. The winner was the young woman on the far left.
The city reached its popular zenith in the 1920s, when Prohibition seems never to have been enforced locally. This period has been the subject of a popular HBO television program, Boardwalk Empire, featuring Steve Buscemi as a character modeled on a local crime boss of the time.
The board game, Monopoly, released in 1935, features properties with street names taken from streets in Atlantic City (although purists remind us that Marven Gardens in Atlantic City is misspelled as Marvin Gardens in the game.)
During World War II, some of the city's large hotels were used to house service members training for duty overseas.
After the war, things changed. More people drove cars, and rail lines didn't deliver as many tourists for summer vacations. Atlantic City started a long decline. By the 1970s it was so dilapidated that New Jersey voters approved a measure to allowing gambling in the city. At the time, the only legal gambling in the United States was in the state of Nevada.
The first resort, shown below, opened in 1978, and others followed.
Unfortunately there were no barriers to entry for other states and Indian reservations, which also craved taxes from gambling revenues. Now casinos are located in most states, and lottery games are offered in all but six states. Atlantic City has seen new competition arise particularly in neighboring states Delaware and Pennsylvania; a planned casino in southern New York state is expected to offer competition for gamblers from northern New Jersey.
Nevada's casinos responded to the competition by offering entertainment, luxury shopping and glitzy themed hotels and resorts. In the middle of a desert, Las Vegas still draws crowds.
By contrast, Atlantic City had developed a reputation for attracting more downscale gamblers, people who came into Atlantic City by the busload, disappeared into the giant casinos and came back out only to catch buses back home. There are other attractions -- a high-end mall, an outlet mall, several museums, an acquarium -- but the city is known mainly for its casinos and for urban decay.
While Atlantic City's casinos more than 30,000 workers, this doesn't seem to have helped the city itself. The population, which peaked at near 70,000 in the 1920s and 1930s, was under 40,000 by the time of the 2010 census. Most casino workers live outside Atlantic City. The city's population, now majority minority, sends its children to schools whose results are among the worst in the state.
The last of the 11 casinos in Atlantic City, the Revel, opened in 2012. It has almost 2,000 rooms, live music shows and a fancy spa. The cost to develop the property was $2.4 billion.
The current line is that the number of casinos in Atlantic City needs to be "right-sized." In a recent earnings call, the CEO of Caesars Entertainment said its Atlantic City property had been the company's most challenging property for several years. Now Caesars is spending $125 million to build a convention center in the city in hopes of increasing midweek traffic.
The city's boardwalk and beach, which attracted so many tourists in early years, were not emphasized as Atlantic City set out to attract gamblers. Hurricane Sandy, which hit the Jersey shore hard in 2012, didn't help. Although damage was less than in other Shore towns and repairs were completed swiftly, the broader public held the impression that the city's boardwalk and beaches were in worse shape and for longer than was the case.
A New Jersey agency, the Casino Reinvestment Development Agency, is setting out to revitalize Atlantic City. More on that tomorrow.