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History of Atlantic City
Written By Barbara Kozek
Atlantic City has a long and varied history. Though much has been written about the post 1977 casino years, and the heyday years of the 30’s and 40’s when the Atlantic City Boardwalk was the in place to be seen, there is a wealth of rich history which dates back over two hundred years before the first dice were thrown or the first jitney hit the pavement. Let’s take a look back into history and discover all the people who helped make Atlantic City, not only what it is today, but what it will be in the future.
The original inhabitants of Absecon Island, on which Atlantic City rests, were the Lenni-Lenape Indians. The Lenni-Lenapes would travel over the Old Indian Trail from the Mainland to the island to spend the summer months. The trail, which was located approximately where Florida Ave. is today, was five miles long over the marshland. The Indians would partake of the abundance the ocean and bay had to offer, along with the varieties of wildlife and flora of the island.
The first recorded owner of Absecon Island was Thomas Budd, an Englishman, who arrived in Atlantic County in late 1670’s. Budd was given the island and other acreage as settlement of a claim he had against the holders of the royal grant. His mainland property was then valued at $ 0.40 an acre, while the beach land a mere $ 0.04 an acre. That same piece of beach front property today would be worth millions of dollars per acre.
For the next hundred years, the island would be visited by not only the Indians, but also hunters and some of the early mainland settlers. Among these brave soles, was Jeremiah Leeds.
Leeds, born in Leeds Point in 1754, was the first white man to build a permanent structure on the island in 1785 at what is now Arctic and Arkansas Ave. His grandfather had built a cedar log cabin on Baltic Ave. at the site of the recently demolished bus terminal as early as 1783.
Jeremiah and his family were the first official residents of Atlantic City. Their home and farm was called Leeds Plantation, and Leeds grew corn and rye and raised cattle. A year after Leeds death in 1838, his second wife Millicent got a license to operate a tavern called Aunt Millie’s Boarding House, located at Baltic and Massachusetts Ave. Thus, the first business in Atlantic City was born.
Several of Jeremiah and Millicent’s children were important in their own right. Robert B. Leeds, born in Atlantic City on May 2, 1828, was the city’s first postmaster. Another son Chalkey S. Leeds, born in Atlantic City in 1824, became the city’s first mayor in 1854.
By the year 1850, there were seven permanent dwellings on the island, all but one which were owned by descendants of Jeremiah Leeds. Dr. Jonathan Pitney, a prominent physician who lived in Absecon, felt that the island had much to offer, and even had ideas of making the island a health resort but access to the island had to be improved. Pitney, along with a civil engineer from Philadelphia, Richard Osborne, had the idea to bring the railroad to the island. In 1852, construction began on the Camden-Atlantic City Railroad. On July 5, 1854, the first train arrived from Camden after a grueling 2.5 hour trip, and the invasion of the tourists had begun.
Osborne has been given credit with naming the city, while his friend Dr. Pitney thought up the plan for the names and placements of the city streets which remains today. Streets running parallel to the ocean would be named after the worlds great bodies of water, Pacific, Atlantic, Baltic, Mediterranean, Adriatic, and Arctic, while the streets which ran east to west would be named after the States.
Visitors to Atlantic City didn’t only arrive by train. Atlantic City was becoming a bustling seaport. But along with the increasing number of sailing vessels, came an increasing number of tragic wrecks off the coast. One of the most tragic was the sinking of the Powhattan, a vessel carrying 311 German immigrants, which sank on April 16, 1854. For days, bodies washed up on the shoreline. Because it was impossible to identify the dead, 54 bodies were buried in a mass grave in the cemetery at the Smithville Methodist Church, and 45 bodies were buried in Absecon. At the urging of Dr. Pitney, a lighthouse was erected in 1854, and turned on one year later. The lighthouse, in the Inlet section of the city, was originally at the edge of the ocean, but it now stands over 1/2 mile from the beach.
The first official road from the mainland to the island was completed in 1870, after 17 years of construction. The road, which ran from Pleasantville, had a $.30 toll. The first free road was Albany Ave., constructed over the meadows from Pleasantville.
By 1878, one railroad couldn’t handle all the passengers wanting to go to the Shore, so the Narrow Gauge Line to Philadelphia was constructed. At this point massive hotels like the United States and the Surf House, as well as smaller rooming houses, had sprung up all over town. The first commercial hotel the Belloe House, located at Massachusetts and Atlantic Ave., was built in 1853, and operated till 1902. The United States Hotel took up a full city block between Atlantic, Pacific, Delaware, and Maryland (the current site of the Showboat Parking lot). These grand hotels were not only impressive in size, but featured the most updated amenities, and were considered quite luxurious for the time.
There were beautiful hotels, elegant restaurants, and convenient transportation, but the businessmen of Atlantic City had one big problem to contend with…SAND. It was everywhere, from the train cars to the hotel lobbies. In 1870, Alexander Boardman, a conductor on the Atlantic City-Camden Railroad, was asked to think up a way to keep the sand out of the hotels and rail cars. Boardman, along with a hotel owner Jacob Keim, presented an idea to City Council. In 1870, and costing half the town’s tax revenue that year, an eight foot wide wooden foot walk was built from the beach into town. This first Boardwalk, which was taken up during the winter, was replaced with another larger structure in 1880.
On Sunday September 9, 1889, a devastating hurricane hit the island, destroying the boardwalk. Most of the city was under 6 feet of water, and the ocean met the bay at Georgia Ave. The Boardwalk of today is 60 feet wide and 6 miles long. Its planks, placed in a herringbone pattern, are laid on a substructure of concrete and steel. Steel railings are in place to keep visitors from falling off to the beach below, and in accordance with an old City Council ordinance, hotels, restaurants and shops are kept on one side of the boards, with amusement piers on the other.
On Weds. June 16, 1880, Atlantic City was formally opened. With fanfare the likes few in the area had seen, a resort was born. By the census of 1900, there were over 27,000 residents in Atlantic City, up from a mere 250 just 45 years before. The first public school was opened in 1858 at Maryland and Arctic Ave. Before this, mainlanders were sent over to teach the island’s children. By 1883, the city had built its first school on Texas Ave., at a cost of $25,000.
The next twenty-five years saw many firsts in the city. The First National Bank of Atlantic City was opened on May 23, 1881, and a little over a year later in July 1882, the first use of electricity, a street light in front of Keuhnles Hall at Atlantic and South Carolina Ave., shown bright. The Atlantic City Beach Patrol opened in August 1881, posting strict 9am to 5pm bathing hours. By the next season, there were 20 guards on duty. The Atlantic City Hospital opened Nov. 30, 1898, while the public library opened Jan.31, 1900. Trolley service began in the city in 1893, extending out to Ventnor in 1900. The trolleys ran till 1955. Atlantic City’s famous Jitney service started up in 1915, with a ride around town costing just 5 cents.
The late 1800’s were a growth time for the city. Nearly 2/3rds of the city’s 6,500 dwellings in 1899 were cottages. These cottages were elaborate 2-3 story private homes, many the summer homes of prominent doctors and businessmen from Philadelphia. Beautifully coifed lawns and magnificently decorated interiors made these homes a symbol of the glory days of the city. At the same time, along the boardwalk, amusement piers began popping up. With names like Million Dollar, Steel, Iron, etc., the piers of Atlantic City were a major draw. Everyone could find some sort of entertainment to meet their tastes from the Diving Horse, Dr. Couney’s Premature Infant Exhibit, and marathon dance contests to side show acts. Despite the variety of draws to the city, one issue remained…how to extend the tourist season past summer. That question was answered by a 16 yr. old girl from Washington in 1921 who was the first Miss America. The pageant, which was held intermittently from 1930-1935, became synonymous with Atlantic City when it began being held at the Convention Hall in 1940.
Atlantic City became “the” place to go. Entertainers from vaudeville to Hollywood graced the stages of the piers. Glamorous Hotels like Haddon Hall, The Traymore, The Shelburne and The Marlborough-Blenheim drew guests from all over the world. Atlantic City’s future seemed bright, until World War II. After the war, the public seemed to stop its love affair with The World’s Favorite Playground. Possibly because of the public’s access to national air travel, the shift of the population westward, the general deterioration of the city, or a shift in the public’s taste for more sophisticated entertainment, Atlantic City lost much of its shine; and most of its tourists.
With the passage of the Casino Gambling Referendum in 1976, Atlantic City began an upward battle, not unlike one it had started two hundred years before, to use the glorious resources it has been given by nature, to make it once again a world renowned tourist Mecca.
If you find the early history of Atlantic City fascinating, you may want to make a side trip to Galloway Township, next time you visit. Buried in the cemetery at The Historic Smithville United Methodist Church and the cemetery across the street from Smithville Village, are the decedents of Jeremiah Leeds, and many other prominent families of the area. The site of the Smithville Methodist Church was the location of the first public house of worship in Atlantic County, the Friend’s Meeting House, erected in 1744.