New Jersey has a pretty long legacy of stories and history around gambling, all centered around the famous Atlantic City and its historic boardwalk.
Over the decades, the resort city has experienced some pretty significant legal and economic shifts as a relevant and major tourist location, and in 2020, it looks like Atlantic City is on an upswing.
Let’s dive into the history of how gambling found its way to Atlantic City and explore some of the crazier facts about Atlantic City.
1- The First Boardwalk Ever Was in Atlantic City
Atlantic City was the first city to introduce a boardwalk. In 1870, the plans for the boardwalk started off as a $5,000 project and would run one mile long.
No stores would be allowed to be within 30 feet of the boardwalk. When harsh winter days arrived in Atlantic City, the boards would be taken apart and stored until the weather returned to a state that allowed people to want to be outside.
The Boardwalk in Atlantic City today runs 4 miles long and is abundant with tourist attractions, a small amusement park, restaurants, bars, and food stands.
2- Saltwater Taffy Came From Atlantic City
If you’ve ever had “saltwater taffy,” you can thank Atlantic City for being the birthplace of the popular candy that tourists have always enjoyed when vacationing in Atlantic City.
In the 1800s, a guy named Joe Fralinger wanted to create a candy that tourists could take home with them, giving them a tasty way to commemorate their trip in Atlantic City. Today, you can still find the famous candy story, “Salty Taffy.”
3- The Largest Musical Instrument in the World is in Atlantic City
A cool fact worth mentioning about Atlantic City is that in its famous venue, Boardwalk Hall, there sits what is known to be the largest musical instrument instrument in the world.
This pipe organ has over 33,000 pipes—no other musical instrument has been able to break this world record. It also holds world records for being the loudest instrument.
4- Atlantic City is the Birthplace of the Miss America Pageant
Everyone that lives inside the United States has heard of the famous Miss America Pageant. The very first pageant was held in Atlantic City in 1921.
The day for the pageant was strategically planned by the city as a way to keep tourists in the city past Labor Day.
The pageant shifted from being held in Atlantic City to moving to Las Vegas in 2006 before returning back to Atlantic City, where the pageant is still currently hosted.
5- Atlantic City Is on an Island and Once Housed a Health Resort
The gambling mecca in Atlantic City sits on an island in New Jersey known as Absecon Island. Back in the early to mid 1800s, the island was primarily used for light farming and shellfish harvesting.
The first idea for a resort to be built on the island came from a doctor named Jonathan Pitney. He thought that the island would be an ideal location for a Health Resort.
In the 1850s, construction on the first hotel would begin. Known as the United States Hotel, the resort would include 600 rooms and take up over 16 acres.
The hotel could comfortably hold 2,000 guests and would be the biggest hotel in the US at this time.
6- Prohibition Was Basically Ignored
By the early 1900s, the US saw a rise in hotel construction, and by the end of the Prohibition era, Atlantic City held the title as being the premier summer resort destination on the East Coast.
During the Prohibition era from the 1920s to the 30s, Atlantic City was a region in the US where Prohibition was simply just not enforced.
Atlantic City was the destination of choice for the thirsty folks that were seeking alcohol. The business model at the time held the belief that hotel owners needed to do whatever they could, and by any means necessary, to make sure that its guests were happy.
The convenient beach location of the resort city made it easy for rum runners to bring their goods onto the shore.
The people in charge of the law enforcement in Atlantic City controlled everything from the smuggling operations and the restaurants where alcohol was served to the hotels, making Atlantic City a wide-open town that supposedly did a good job of violating the federal laws that existed during this time period.
7- New Jersey Has a Long Gambling History
New Jersey has always had a long-held reputation for being more open than other states when it came to gambling. The state would run lotteries in an attempt to help fund war efforts until they were made illegal in 1844.
New Jersey was also home to the Freehold Raceway, the oldest racetrack in the United States. Freehold Raceway continued to operate through various legal statuses, much like how the town continued to serve alcohol through the prohibition period.
This included an 1894 decision to ban parimutuel gambling, a type of betting that involves all bets being placed in a fixed pool, and an 1897 vote which made all gambling illegal.
Racetrack gambling would be legalized again in 1939, but despite the fact that gambling was illegal in the state until 1939, illegal casino and bookmaking operations, slot machines, and numbers rackets were abundant in Atlantic City.
8- A Crime Boss Ran the City
The city operated under the crime boss Enoch Nucky Johnson, who was actually featured in an HBO series in 2010 called the Boardwalk Empire.
Filled with famous—but at the same time underground—speakeasy establishments, drinking, and betting, Atlantic City redefined the prohibition era. Atlantic City was so popular during this era that the famous hotel, Resorts Hotel Casino, renovated its entire resort to try to capture the 1920s vibe and culture.
As Johnson became more powerful, infiltrating different government commitees in Atlantic City throughout the early 1900s, it is said that he made an annual $500,000 from kickbacks that he would take from construction projects, illegal drinking, prostitution rings operating in Atlantic City, and gambling.
From a quote in an NYT obituary, Johnson stated “We have whiskey, wine, women, song, and slot machines. I won’t deny it, and I won’t apologize for it. If the majority of the people didn’t want them, they wouldn’t be profitable, and they would not exist. The fact that they do exist proves to me that the people want them.”
By the year 1941, Nucky Johnson would be convicted in tax evasion charges, resulting in a 10-year federal prison sentence. After serving 4 years, Johnson was released on parole, never seeking a seat in politics again.
9- Atlantic City Fell to Pieces After WWII
The end of the Second World War would bring a huge shift in the popularity of Atlantic City, a shift that would cause a severe decline in the city’s economy.
The demise of Atlantic City during this time period would create an influx of crime and poverty. By the 1960s, a pretty significant number of hotels would be closed down and repurposed as apartments and nursing homes.
Several of the popular landmark hotels in the city were completely demolished.
10- Legalized Gambling Was Seen as the Way to Save Atlantic City
By the 1970s, the plan would emerge to legalize gambling in Atlantic City and attempt to recreate the once popular resort town.
The New Jersey lottery emerging in 1970 would act as a catalyst that would bring the popularity of gambling back to Atlantic City.
There were potential downsides and fears around legalizing gambling and turning the city back into a resort mecca. A huge state-wide fear was that casinos would end up back in the hands of mafia organizations and would inevitably lead to corruption and exploitation of New Jersey’s vulnerable citizens.
But despite the fears of local leaders, many Atlantic City locals stuck behind the idea that casinos were the answer for how to bring Atlantic City back into the spotlight. They tried to introduce a revised referendum that would legalize gaming inside the borders of Atlantic City only.
Millions of dollars were spent on a campaign to save the city through Atlantic City legalized casinos. In 1976, proponents successfully got the proposal added to the ballot, and the press of Atlantic City ran a front-page editorial supporting legalizing gambling in Atlantic City as the answer to the city’s economic trouble.
The revised referendum passed in November 1976, although according to the Atlantic City Free Public Library, it was approved by a slim margin of just 1.5 million votes to 1.14 million.
In 1978, Resorts Atlantic City, which still operates from the same Boardwalk location to this day, became the first legalized Atlantic City casino to open to the public.
By the 1970s, Atlantic City would also see the first opening of the doors of Caesar’s Atlantic City and Bally’s Atlantic City.
Is There More That I Missed?
Atlantic City has experienced some pretty significant economic rises and falls throughout the last century.
By 2018, the city had finally seen its first economic rise since the previous decade, and today, Atlantic City’s economy is as stable and profitable as ever.
Do you have some facts about the history of Atlantic City and its entertainment industry that I missed?
If you have some relevant thoughts, please feel free to leave them down in the comment section below!