Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Establishment of Atlantic City: From Marsh to Boomtown

Atlantic City is located on Absecon Island, a bit south of the Jersey Shore's midpoint. In 1850, the island was a land of sand dunes, with some cultivation by the descendants of Jeremiah Leeds who served in the Revolutionary War. A local Columbia-educated doctor, Jonathan Pitney, saw an opportunity to develop the land as a seaside "health" resort. Nobody else saw such an opportunity.

Realizing his limited means (rural doctors didn't earn much), Pitney formed an alliance with Samuel Richards, an industrial baron in the rural southern, central part of New Jersey. Richards used his clout to talk the politicians into cutting a railroad from Camden to Absecon Island. He could use it as a way to transport his factory goods into Camden, a large port city at the time, and Pitney could use it as a way to get passengers from Philadelphia and Camden to his planned health resort.

The first rail line that ran from Camden to Atlantic City was successful in bringing passengers to Atlantic City, but the train ride was uncomfortable and there was little to do for vacationers once there. Investment in hotels was scant and mosquitoes and insects were rampant. Pitney passed away but Richards assumed his interest in developing Atlantic City. He decided that dropping rail fares would open up a new class of vacationers: Those seeking to get away from the city on their one day off from work. When the original rail line refused to drop its rates, he founded a new, no-frills and inexpensive rail line.

His idea was spot-on. Atlantic City was not poised to compete with Cape May, at the southern tip of New Jersey, which was well entrenched in the upper class vacation market. Atlantic City became a place for day-tripping working class and industry to cater to them sprang up. As that happened, laborers moved into the area and began to stay year-round, scraping by in the winter and making up for it in the tourist high-season. By the beginning of the 20th century, the population of Atlantic City had exploded to 30,000 with populations of Irish, Italians and Jews bringing their respective trades and forming ethnic neighborhoods. Atlantic City had become, in fact, a city.

Check out The Efficient Drinker for more on Atlantic City history and politicians like Jimmy Boyd

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