Aaahh, the Atlantic City Boardwalk. It is the famed promenade known for the roaring sea and dozens of confection shops and amusements. It is the cherished blue property of the most popular board game in the world. It is truly the walk that inspired many more, but can never be duplicated.
Surprisingly, the most famous walkway on the East Coast was not built to be anything more than a solution to keeping the sand out of the ritzy beachfront hotels and the Camden and Atlantic’s railroad passenger cars. A fed-up railroad conductor and hotel owner first petitioned to the city council in 1870, asking that a mile-long footwalk be established.
Costing five thousand dollars and built 10 feet wide in sections of 12 feet, the first of the famed boards was dedicated on June 16, 1870. No commerce of any kind was allowed within thirty feet of the walk, and at the end of each summer season for many years, the Boardwalk was actually taken apart and stored for the winter months.
Ten years later, vacationers had splintered the Boardwalk, so city council built a new one, this time four feet wider and much longer. The go-ahead was given at this time as well for commerce to get closer than thirty feet, ten to be exact. By 1883, this ordinance was “tossed to sea” and almost one hundred stores, stalls and stands had Boardwalk addresses.
A storm in 1884 was the cause for a third boardwalk to be built, twenty-feet wide, two miles long, and this time with pilings five feet above the beach so the tides could wash beneath safely. Safety was not exactly the first thing you thought of when it came to the Boardwalk. There were no railings, and accounts told of at least somebody every day falling off the boards, usually in the act of flirting.
An 1889 hurricane brought about a new, improved, and almost final Boardwalk. It was all about bigger and better with this one, 24-feet wide, 10 feet high, nearly 4 miles long, and railings on both sides. Its popularity and large crowds demanded some small improvements and expansion in 1896. The year 1916 saw the design of the present herringbone board pattern, supportive steel pilings, and forty-foot steel beams, making it the Boardwalk it is today.
By the early 1900s, the Boardwalk had replaced the ocean as Atlantic City’s greatest and most romantic attraction. It had the strollers, the rolling chairs, the bathers and the lovers. Not even Paris’s Champs Elysees could beat that! There were even hit songs, and later films, singing the praises of this boardwalk in New Jersey. Lavish hotels, enormous electrical signs and rambunctious, colorful amusement piers started to hug it from both sides.
The 1920s saw the full-blown hoopla of Atlantic City from the Boardwalk. In New Jersey’s entertainment capital, stunts, shows, the greatest big band music of the era, the original Miss America pageant and parades were all part of the mix, all at its feet. Women and men in the latest fashions, who wanted to be seen, knew the Boardwalk was the place to be. In 1929, just months before the stock market and U.S. economy crashed, the New York Times toasted the Boardwalk as, “A magnificent proof of America’s newly found wealth and leisure. It is an iridescent bubble on the surface of our fabulous prosperity.”
Wartime in the 1940s also made some Boardwalk memories. Convention Hall, located right on the Boardwalk, was then serving as a training facility, preparing thousands of young soldiers for service. Squads of armed forces could be seen marching up and down the boards. Mock beachfront invasions and war bond rallies were common as well. As 1942 rumors began flying that German U-boats were on the watch along the coast, Boardwalk lamps were shaded for protection.
The 1950s and 1960s gave the Boardwalk some real star power, and then some. Some famous feet to tread upon the boards included Marilyn Monroe, Jimmy Durante, Ed Sullivan, Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra, Milton Berle, Dean Martin and Bing Crosby. The Beatles ate the city’s world famous subs on it. Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon opened a bowling alley on it. Jayne Mansfield filmed scenes from The Burglar on it. Let’s just say it’s seen its fair share of stars, and we’re not talking astrology.
The late 1970s saw the groundbreaking decision to bring casino gaming to the fading beach resort. The Boardwalk stood as proud as ever when Resorts International first opened its doors on Memorial Day Weekend, 1978. Thousands came in those first three days and gave it the best stomp it had in years.
With the legalization of gambling, hotels, stores and piers along the Boardwalk started to make like deeds in a MONOPOLY game and changed hands rapidly. The boards stood by as out-of-town bigwigs came, saw and invested. This investing has prospered into the new century, with the Boardwalk ever by its side.
Over a century after its emergence and evolution, the Boardwalk still stands as a historic American symbol of good times and rich culture and remains one of the best boardwalks anywhere. Some may still believe that Atlantic City’s future rides on the roll of a dice. They just might want to take a stroll on that timeless Boardwalk to realize this city is going nowhere but up. Place your bets!