By Peter Sandler
The first boom: before 1945
After the first group of tourists arrived by train in 1854, Atlantic City quickly became known as a great summer time getaway, especially for people living in Philadelphia, which could be stifling during the summer. Beyond the visitors that arrived by train, many also came by ship, soon leading to the city becoming a major port city. However, due to a number of accidents and ships that sank, the city was never able to compete with some of the larger and more established New England ports despite the erection of Absecon Lighthouse. In 1878 a second, faster, rail connection was opened and from this point on Atlantic City took off as the choice vacation destination for not only people in Philadelphia, but for people throughout New England.
By the start of the twentieth century, Atlantic City was a booming resort town that was utterly dominated by enormous luxury hotels, though there were also plenty of lower cost boarding houses available as well. This period saw a massive extension of the Boardwalk (originally constructed in 1870 as a practical measure to stop people from tracking sand into all the town's establishments). By the 1920s, and continuing on through the 1940s, the city became the premier "hot spot" for America's rich and famous, from U.S. presidents to all the greats of early film and theater. This represented the apex of AC's popularity and was when the city became known as "The World's Favorite Playground". However, this boom did not last, the post World War II period saw a rapid decline in the city's fortunes.
Decline and recovery
As happened with many of the older cities on the East Coast, the post war years saw a dramatic decline of fortune. Those with the resources moved out to newly built suburbs, leaving only the poor in the city center resulting in more crime and less investment. At the same time the advent of air conditioning meant the summers in Philadelphia were not as unbearable as before, so more people decided to stay home. The ride of the personal automobile meant that many of the visitors that did come only came for day trips or for weekends, unlike the old train visitors who would usually stay for one or more weeks, instead of days. Further, the rise of commercial air transportation meant that the rich and famous could easily go to more exotic locations, like Florida or California for the summer. All of these factors and others resulted in Atlantic City slowly devolving into a massive urban slum, and most of the tourist industry collapsed.
In an effort to revitalize Atlantic City, in 1976 New Jersey voters approved a state referendum introducing casino gambling to Atlantic City. The first casino opened in 1978 and many more followed suit immediately afterwards. The mid-1980s also saw a massive crime wave in Las Vegas, which resulted in Atlantic City briefly holding the title of America's number one gaming destination. However, after Las Vegas cleaned itself up, Atlantic City went back to being the second most popular gambling destination in the United States and has remained in second place ever since.
Although it took longer than many would have preferred, the gambling industry did eventually revitalize much of Atlantic City and the 2000s saw an unprecedented boom with all of the major casino resorts (check this one) undergoing massive renovations as well as the emergence of new casino resorts, like the Borgata that opened in 2003.
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