The History of Atlantic City: From Seaside Resort to Iconic Destination

Early Beginnings and Founding

Atlantic City, located on Absecon Island in New Jersey, has a history that dates back to the early 19th century. Before European settlers arrived, the island was home to the Lenni-Lenape Native Americans, who used the area seasonally for fishing and gathering. The development of Atlantic City as we know it began in earnest in the 1850s when Dr. Jonathan Pitney, a physician, envisioned the island as a health resort. He collaborated with railroad engineer Richard Osborne to create a plan for a city that would attract visitors seeking the therapeutic benefits of the sea air and saltwater.

In 1854, the Camden and Atlantic Railroad was completed, connecting the island to Philadelphia and making it accessible to tourists. This year is often considered the founding of Atlantic City, marking the start of its transformation from a sparsely populated island to a bustling seaside resort.

The Rise of the Boardwalk

One of the most iconic features of Atlantic City is its boardwalk, the first of its kind in the United States. Constructed in 1870, the original boardwalk was a temporary structure designed to keep sand out of hotel lobbies. However, its popularity quickly grew, and it became a permanent fixture, expanding over the years to accommodate the increasing number of visitors.

The boardwalk spurred the development of grand hotels, restaurants, and entertainment venues. By the late 19th century, Atlantic City had become a premier destination for vacationers from across the country, especially from the northeastern United States.

The Golden Age

The early 20th century is often referred to as the “Golden Age” of Atlantic City. During this period, the city reached its peak as a resort destination. The boardwalk was lined with luxurious hotels such as the Marlborough-Blenheim, the Traymore, and the Claridge. The city also became known for its vibrant nightlife, with numerous theaters, clubs, and amusement parks.

In 1921, Atlantic City hosted the first Miss America Pageant, an event that quickly became a national sensation and solidified the city’s reputation as a center for entertainment and glamour.

Decline and Rebirth

The mid-20th century brought significant challenges to Atlantic City. The rise of automobile travel and the development of other vacation destinations led to a decline in visitors. The city struggled economically, and many of its famous hotels fell into disrepair.

In an effort to revitalize the city, New Jersey voters approved casino gambling in Atlantic City in 1976. The first casino, Resorts International, opened in 1978, marking the beginning of a new era. The introduction of casinos brought a surge of investment and visitors, transforming Atlantic City into the “Las Vegas of the East.”

Modern Developments

Despite the initial success of the casino industry, Atlantic City has faced numerous ups and downs in recent decades. Competition from other gambling destinations, economic downturns, and natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy in 2012 have all posed significant challenges.

In response, the city has diversified its attractions, focusing on non-gambling entertainment, conventions, and family-friendly activities. New developments such as the Atlantic City Convention Center, the revitalization of the Steel Pier, and the construction of new hotels and resorts have aimed to broaden the city’s appeal.

Cultural and Historical Significance

Atlantic City holds a unique place in American culture. It has been the setting for numerous films, television shows, and songs, and it remains a symbol of both the glamour and the challenges of American leisure and tourism. The city’s history is preserved in landmarks such as the Absecon Lighthouse, the Atlantic City Historical Museum, and, of course, the iconic boardwalk.


From its beginnings as a health resort envisioned by Dr. Jonathan Pitney to its heyday as a premier seaside destination and its transformation into a major casino hub, Atlantic City has continually reinvented itself. Today, it stands as a testament to the resilience and adaptability of a city that has navigated the ebb and flow of changing times and tastes. As Atlantic City looks to the future, it continues to honor its rich history while seeking new ways to attract and enchant visitors from around the world.