Atlantic City is a resort town near the southern tip of New Jersey.
They legalized casino gambling in the 1970s. Casino gambling
in Atlantic City is a $3 billion industry, second only to Las Vegas
as an American gambling destination.
Unlike Vegas, Atlantic City is a small town. The population at the
last census was just under 40,000. But its reputation is as a
resort city. The historic boardwalk (where the casinos are)
stretches along four miles of the Jersey shore. 26 million people
visit Atlantic City each year, travelling mostly by car from nearby
Pennsylvania and New York, though routes via plane and rail are also available.
But Atlantic City was a resort town long before legalized gambling. The city’s golden age was the 1920s, when
federal law made both gambling and alcohol illegal. Atlantic City’s history is more than Donald Trump, beauty
pageants, and boxing matches. It’s a microcosm of the best and worst about the 20th century.
This article covers the history of Atlantic City from its beginnings to the modern day. We also take a look at
what the future might hold for the resort.
A Brief Look at South Jersey
The stretch of land that Atlantic City occupies was described by Benjamin Franklin as “a keg tapped at both
ends.” He was referring to the fact that South Jersey is sandwiched between New York City to the north and
Philadelphia to the west. But it’s also squeezed geographically between the Delaware River to the west (with
swampy tributaries practically cutting through downtown AC) and the Atlantic Ocean on its immediate eastern
Generally speaking, Atlantic City is at the heart of the area of Jersey with a heavy Philadelphia cultural
influence. The rest of the state tends to be influenced by New York City. The people calling this part of Jersey
home are distinguishable from other residents of the state by their accent, which is much more Philadelphia
If you’ve never been in this part of the country, you’re missing out. It’s gorgeous. The coastline to the south of
Atlantic City’s boardwalk has pure white sand, ocean water that’s warm enough for swimming and surfing five
months out of the year, and amazing sport and hobby fishing. Jersey is called “the garden state” partially
because of the magnificent soil in the state’s central and southern stretches. This area of the country produces
amazing fruits and vegetables, tomatoes being the most popular – These beaches are a popular destination when the sun is shining.
Originally a Quaker commonwealth, South Jersey was the population center of present-day New Jersey, and
has remained largely settled since the 17th century. Today, the population of the eight counties that make up
South Jersey is around 2.5 million. Far from the caricatures presented in popular culture by shows like The
Jersey Shore, this part of the country is home to a diverse group of Americans, a strong education system, and
plenty to see and do besides lounge on a beach.
The Founding of Atlantic City
The natural beauty in this part of New Jersey was recognizable as a potential resort destination as far back as
the 1850s. The first resort hotel in the area (the Belloe House) was built before the city was even founded.
Atlantic City was officially incorporated on May 1, 1854, carving sections of the city from nearby Egg Harbor
Township and Galloway.
Dr. Jonathan Pitney is considered “the father of Atlantic City.” He was a physician and South Jersey native who
believed that Absecon Island (where the majority of Atlantic City is located) was the ideal spot for what he
called a “medical retreat.” Pitney and his business partners proposed the creation of his resort town to
Philadelphia railroad executives, who were sold on his notion that salt water and sea air held curative
The opening of the Camden & Atlantic Railroad, which hugged the rim of the bay at the edge of Atlantic City
and connected the tiny resort town with Philadelphia, created the phenomenon known as AC to locals. Within
twenty years, increased access to the area and the opening of new attractions would bring 500,000 visitors a
year to the city.
Soon, hotels and other resort properties were prospering like nowhere else in the country. The United States
Hotel, which popped up to serve the influx of new visitors seeking medical treatment on Absecon Island, was
the largest hotel in America for decades. Hotel owners soon created the first boardwalk merely to keep sand
out of their lobbies. Eventually stretching seven miles to the tip of the Jersey landmass, the Boardwalk is still
the most readily-identifiable feature of the Atlantic City metro area.
Atlantic City and Prohibition
The first fifteen years of the 20th century saw a massive building boom on Absecon Island. A second railway
was added to help funnel the droves of tourists now flocking to the tiny city. One by one, massive hotels,
providing forms of entertainment both legal and illegal, populated the tiny stretch of Jersey Shore.
But what would happen to the city known as “the world’s playground” after the 18th Amendment went into
effect? How could a city that depended on conviviality and good times survive without John Barleycorn? To put
it simply — the consumption of alcohol and a host of other vices went unregulated in Atlantic City for the
duration of the 18th Amendment’s fourteen-year existence.
AC actually thrived during Prohibition, thanks to corruption at basically every level of government and law enforcement.
The popular TV series Boardwalk Empire is set at the height of both Prohibition and Atlantic City’s golden age.
It centers on the story of Nucky Johnson, a real-life political juggernaut who single-handedly controlled liquor,
gambling, and prostitution, among other crime markets.
The effect of all this underworld activity was immediate. Johnson’s influence went as far as the state capitol.
It’s said that Johnson handpicked congressmen, senators, and governors, thanks to his influence in the
Republican Party in the state.
But the end of Prohibition and the beginning of World War Two spelled a near-disaster for the city and for
South Jersey as a whole.
The First Collapse
The end of the Second World War led immediately to the first great collapse of the Atlantic City economy.
The first hiccup for the city’s popularity was the decline in train travel. The area had long depended on tourists
from nearby Philadelphia, New York, and other cities that were close enough for a convenient train trip. With
the advent of the automobile, people could look further when choosing a vacation destination. They could
also come and go as they wanted, staying for a single night or just a single day, rather than remaining in town
for a week or more.
But that wasn’t the only factor.
America post-WWII was fast becoming a nation of suburbs. The GI Bill moved returning soldiers out of urban
centers and into sprawling private neighborhoods. White flight was a factor in post-war suburban sprawl, as
were changes in labor laws and a boom in population. With the suburbs came other luxuries, like
air-conditioning, private lawns, and home swimming pools. Why travel all the way to Atlantic City at great
expense just to experience what you’ve got at home?
A final factor may have had a bigger impact than either the automobile or suburban sprawl. More people
were able to afford travel by jet to far-away exotic destinations. Families who regularly visited South Jersey
were now able to consider places like Miami, California, or Mexico. As the price of jet travel fell, so did tourist
interest in a nearby resort haven like Atlantic City.
By the 1960s, Atlantic City was in disrepair. Resorts and hotels were closing and being demolished by the
score — but little was moving in to take their places. Of the dozens of huge resorts and hotels along the
boardwalk, only three survive. You can find parts of the Claridge, the Dennis, and the Ritz-Carltonas parts of
casinos and other buildings.
Something had to be done if Atlantic City were to avoid becoming a ghost town.
The Movement to Legalize Gambling
The first ripple of change in the city’s future came in 1970.
For the first time, New Jersey residents voted in favor of a gambling-based referendum, albeit one that created
a state lottery. Four years later, the first referendum that would legalize casino gambling state-wide was held.
It failed, but by the slimmest of margins.
Businessmen interested in bringing casino gambling to New Jersey got wise and drafted a new referendum
two years later. This new legislation limited the scope of legal casino gambling to Atlantic City only. That
referendum passed by a margin of twenty points. The first Atlantic City casino (Resorts Atlantic City) opened
This was a big deal — after all, at that time, the only other legal casinos in America were in Nevada, nearly two
thousand miles away from residents of the east coast. Eventually, fifteen major casinos were built within the
city limits. Some of these have subsequently closed, but some are still open today.
May 1978 – Present Day
June 1979 – Present Day
December 1979 – Present Day
August 1980 – November 2006
November 1980 – Present Day
December 1980 – Present Day
Del Webb’s Claridge
July 1981 – December 2002
April 1981 – January 1999
November 1981 – Present Day
May 1984 – September 2014
June 1985 – Present Day
April 1987 – August 2014
Trump Taj Mahal
April 1990 – Present Day
July 2003 – Present Day
May 2012 – September 2014
AC casino revenues first topped the $1 billion mark in 1981, and revenue grew every year until 2007, peaking
at $5.2 billion. That’s twenty-six years of growth and high profits.
The Second Collapse
But all is not well on Absecon Island. Atlantic City is in the middle of a second great collapse. In 2014, casino
revenues were down for the seventh straight year. The total number of tourists to the city fell for the ninth
straight year. The city’s airport is struggling. Oh, and the casino industry is in free-fall.
Here’s what happened.
Las Vegas experienced a major revival
The 1990s brought competition from the other American gambling Mecca. Vegas revitalized itself, with theme
hotels popping up in Nevada as frequently as they once did in New Jersey. Vegas simultaneously became
both more enticing as the city of sin and more family-friendly. Improvements to AC casinos were a longer
time coming than those in Las Vegas – Atlantic City was soon outclassed and outpaced by its competitor on the left coast.
The American casino industry boomed
Two casinos opened in Connecticut in the early 90s. They were followed by multiple tribal enterprises within
a few hundred miles of South Jersey. Expansion of casino and sports gambling in nearby Pennsylvania, New
York, and Delaware has chipped away little by little at AC’s profits. As more properties appear in
non-traditional gambling destinations, Atlantic City casinos begin to shutter their doors.
Poor economic conditions
Not only did New Jersey experience economic hardship in the early 2000s, but the entire country fell prey to
a recession in the late 2000s. This came at an awful time for Atlantic City, which was already facing increased
competition, reduced revenues, and a surging crime problem. Not only did people not really want to visit
Atlantic City. They suddenly couldn’t afford it.
Ultimately, six casinos closed between the year 1999 and 2014. The most dramatic closure award goes to
Revel, which managed to keep the doors of its cutting-edge hotel and casino property open for less than two
years. As if things weren’t bad enough, Super storm Sandy hit this part of New Jersey like a bomb, and rumors
of the collapse of the city and the destruction of the boardwalk hurt the tourist trade even more.
Now Atlantic City has one of the highest unemployment rates in America–14%. The total labor force that
serves the city numbers around 150,000. Thanks to the collapse of the casino tourism industry, 21,000 people
on Absecon Island are without work, with few prospects for work in the future.
The Future of Atlantic City
The only thing that will save the city from the same fate it almost experienced in the 1970s is money. And
we’re not talking about a $100 million renovation. We’re talking about a project on the level of what happened
in Vegas in the 90s.
The city is cursed by old and often abandoned buildings, a system of roadways that makes little sense in the
context of modern transportation, crippling poverty, a surging violent crime rate, and the earliest signs of
exodus into the suburbs or to other states.
One suggestion is gaining a lot of attention. Open up casino and sports gambling in other parts of the state
and have that sector of the industry pay tribute to Atlantic City to contribute to its redevelopment. Some are
concerned that the loss of revenue to Atlantic City would far outpace the income from expanded gaming
Clearly the city must diversify if it wants to avoid being taken over by the state government. Governor Christie
has made that threat as recently as 2011. What would that look like? Remember — Absecon Island is a beautiful
haven for wildlife, featuring world-class fishing spots, beautiful beaches and bay systems, and the famous
boardwalk. Why shouldn’t billions of dollars be poured into the area to develop new spas, retreats, health
centers, and other non-gaming activities?
The first step should be to reroute luxury taxes on rooms and other amenities. 100% of all luxury and room
taxes in Atlantic City now go directly to the state government. As a triage tactic, returning those funds to the
city would stem the immediate threat of collapse and provide local businesses with some incentive to continue
to provide services in the face of hardship.
If Atlantic City is still a viable tourist destination in twenty years, it will be because the city has found a way to
highlight its natural beauty and other non-gaming features. We expect this will happen. The area is too
populated, too important to the state economy, and too important historically to be allowed to fall apart. It will
be interesting to see how the state of New Jersey and local AC politicians work this out.
Governor Chris Christie’s attempt to legalize sports betting in Atlantic City was a last-ditch
attempt to quickly revitalize the city with an influx of new gamblers. That attempt has so far
been upended by a lawsuit from the NCAA and other athletic groups. It’s not clear yet what,
if anything, will return Atlantic City to its former glory.
Though casino gambling continues to be a multi-billion dollar business, it hasn’t kept pace
with growth in the area, and several high-profile urban issues are still unaddressed. A trip to
Atlantic City today is a trip to a city that simply didn’t exist forty years ago. As the city’s
financial future falls further into question, one has to wonder if that city will still exist in
another ten years.
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