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A Boardwalk Empire Tour of Atlantic City

The critically-acclaimed original dramatic television series from HBO, “Boardwalk Empire” tells the story of corruption that takes place in Atlantic City, New Jersey during the Prohibition era. Enoch “Nucky” Thompson – politician, businessman and gangster – is a criminal kingpin who associates with corrupt politicians, greedy gangsters, government agents and the common folk with equal aplomb. Although the feds continually attempt to foil his illegal activities (including bootlegging) Nucky has accumulated great power, respect and wealth to fund his lavish lifestyle, as well as a few enemies along the way.

Recreating the authenticity of Old Atlantic City was a big project, so award-winning visual effects studio Brainstorm Digital sent a research team of staffers to Atlantic City to explore nooks and crannies and to study architectural plans, archival photographs and postcards. Filming for the show takes place mainly in various locations and studios in and around New York City.

Boardwalk Empire Filming Locations

In the series, Nucky Thompson resides on an entire floor in the Ritz Carlton Hotel, where the real Enoch ”Nucky” Johnson, corrupt Atlantic City treasurer, actually made his home. Today the 18-story red brick historic building is a complex of condos, but you can still see the impressive grand staircase that leads up to the original wood-paneled walls and elevators.

“Nucky ate here. Shouldn’t you?” advertises the Knife & Fork Inn, which in 1912 was an exclusive men’s drinking club and legendary steakhouse established by the mayor William Riddle and Commodore Louis Keuhnle (played by Dabney Coleman) and by the 1920s regularly patronized by Nucky Johnson. Prohibition laws of the time were simply ignored and liquor was openly poured for many years before the establishment was finally raided.

After changing hands a few times, the Knife & Fork has been restored and renovated – the original swinging brass door refurbished, the vaulted ceiling restored, and red roof tiles and white stucco exterior replaced.

The current owner is Frank Dougherty, owner/manager of another Atlantic City fine dining landmark, Dock’s Oyster House. This family-owned seafood restaurant was established in 1897 by Harry “Dock” Dougherty, Frank’s great grandfather, who probably served top-quality seafood to Nucky Johnson. Dock’s high standards and uncompromising quality have helped make it the second-oldest continuously run business in Atlantic City.

The honor of being the oldest goes to James’ Salt Water Taffy, established in 1880 by Enoch James, which is still operating out of its original storefront taffy factory. Fralinger’s, also a family-run taffy business and competitor of James’ Candy from the 1880s, is another one of the Boardwalk Empire filming locations you can visit today. Tour the James’ taffy factory June through August and see how each blob of chewy taffy sweetness is made. Then buy a box of the first “Atlantic City Souvenir” to take home.

The Absecon Lighthouse, operating since the Civil War, provided navigational aid to boats hauling illegal cargos of booze. There is a museum and gift shop on the first floor of the re-created lighthouse keeper’s cottage, and for a nominal fee you can climb the 228 steps to the top for an amazing view of Atlantic City.

Lucy the Elephant, a 6-story historic landmark built in 1881 to attract visitors, still does so today. It was thought that the owners hung lights in the large glass eyes to send signals to bootleggers’ boats – red lights warned boats to stay in the ocean and green meant it was OK to come into town.

For a taste of Old Atlantic City as depicted in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, head next door to the Irish Pub, a turn-of-the century building that was a speakeasy and boarding house (with a different name) during Prohibition. Now an award-winning restaurant and tavern, it still has a trap door.

To take advantage of the increased interest in Prohibition in Atlantic City during Nucky’s reign, two trolley companies are offering tours: The Great American Trolley Company presents the “Roaring 20s® Tour” and Atlantic City Tours offers “A Splash of Atlantic City.”

If you’d like to learn more, The Atlantic City Experience 1920s at the Atlantic City Free Public Library is a special collection of books, photographs, audio and video files and memorabilia related to the rich history of Atlantic City. You’ll also find a virtual exhibit entitled Nucky’s Empire: The Prohibition Years.