Thousands of people know facts and trivia about New Jersey’s history, but very few know that the Atlantic City boardwalk was the first boardwalk of its kind in the United States! Today, the boardwalk is known as a major tourist center, filled with casinos, live entertainment and restaurants. However, when when the boardwalk was first built in the 19th century, it was the only town attraction and one of the coolest things to worth writing home about.
History of the Atlantic City boardwalk
First constructed in 1870, the boardwalk in Atlantic City was very different from what it is today. When people think of the modern AC boardwalk, they envision the wooden planks that symbolize a “boardwalk” as well as fun souvenir shops, restaurants and bars. Back when the AC boardwalk was first opened though, there were no stores, restaurants or commercial businesses anywhere near the boardwalk. Nothing commercial was permitted within 30 feet of it by law. This meant that local businesses had to hope that visitors would venture away from the beach and enjoy their establishments.
In many ways, having this restriction was a good thing. Without the distractions of multiple businesses, people were given a chance to fully enjoy the beach and bask in all of its natural glory. They could stroll along the shoreline, sunbathe in the sand and play with their children – all without having to worry about distractions. While visitors in the 21st century may find this description of a boardwalk to be somewhat boring, times were different back then. Simplicity was key.
Why it was built
When the boardwalk was first built, Atlantic City was a resort town. People from across the United State loved to visit Atlantic City because for a luxurious vacation spot nestled far away from society’s undesirable. Having the commercial business restriction was the ideal situation for many vacationers because they knew that they could enjoy all of the stores and restaurants, without having it intrude upon their relaxation and beach fun with family and friends.
Locals also loved the fact that the boardwalk provided a separation between their hotels and the sand. Many people were not fans of walking directly out of their houses or hotels and immediately landing on the beach – especially if they wore dress shoes or had to deal with sand being tracked in their homes. In fact, sand proved to be a huge nuisance to visitors and hoteliers alike.
The sand problem was also beginning to hit hotels and resorts in the area in a negative way. After a while, people had had enough of the sand issue and rallied for a solution. By building a platform of wooden planks, people no longer felt overtaken by the beach and sand no longer found its way into houses, shoes or stockings and tourists began welcoming Atlantic City vacation ideas with open arms.
Interesting features of the boardwalk
One of the most surprising features of the Atlantic City boardwalk was that its first incarnation was collapsible. Every year, following the close of the summer season, the 10 foot wide boardwalk would be dismantled and stored for safekeeping. Although this is unheard of now, it was a valuable system in the 19th and early 20th century because it allowed the city to protect the boards from wear and tear.
While the boards were protected from nature after storage, pedestrians during primetime season proved to be another challenging factor. Vandalism was not a problem per se, but in 1883, 10 years after its initial construction, the Atlantic City boardwalk needed to be replaced. It seemed that tourists and residents had come to love the attraction so much that it couldn’t withstand the traffic and began showing signs of age.
In the process of rebuilding, the boardwalk was made even bigger and better. The dimensions of the boards were increased and, to the pleasure of business owners, commerce’s were allowed to set up shop 10 feet away from the boards, as opposed to the original restriction of 30 feet.
Signs of growth and progress
Allowing businesses to be closer to the boardwalk proved to be powerful in terms of a cultural shift. Because times had changed since the first New Jersey boardwalk’s introduction, people began accepting the integration of summer leisurely activity and incorporated business. With every passing summer the boardwalk grew, businesses developed and, once gambling was legalized, even major casinos became prominent sights on the boardwalk.
Shortly after its reconstruction, in 1884, a storm destroyed a large portion of the now beloved boardwalk, upsetting many visitors and locals alike. To quell the issue of disappointed visitors and ensure that summers in Atlantic City could still include the notion of “boardwalk fun”, the attraction was rebuilt yet again. Upon its third construction, the boardwalk was raised up so the ocean tide could run beneath it. It was also extended to be 20 feet wide and now stretched for two whole miles.
It seemed like Mother Nature was not interested in the boardwalk’s existence. In 1889, only half a decade after its third construction, a hurricane once again destroyed the boardwalk. Just as before, the city restored it, albeit with new tweaks to its design. In this last reconstruction, the boardwalk was extended to 24 feet wide. It also was raised 10 feet off the ground to avoid damage, and stretched to a whopping 4 miles long.
Even though Mother Nature seemed to have protested its growth, the Atlantic City boardwalk never faced any disapproval from guests. From day one, people welcomed this boardwalk with open arms, embracing its design. Later on, it became known as one of the most prized commercial hotspots in the area. By the 1900s, it replaced the Atlantic Ocean as the number one Jersey Shore attraction.
Today, Atlantic City is still one of the most famous locations in NJ. It has become the de facto symbol of New Jersey beach culture, a famous place for gambling exploits as well as a locale known for the summer fun that soon was imitated by never quite replicated by other resort towns.
Despite losing some steam in recent years due to the financial downturn and casino closures, Atlantic City and its boardwalk, will remain a hotspot destination for both local residents and tourists. No matter what will happen to the casino culture that the town had cultivated over the years, it will always remain New Jersey’s, and America’s, first boardwalk.
What is your favorite thing about the Atlantic City boardwalk? We’d love to know!
Check out our NJ Beach Guide for all things to do up and down the shore!