Summer Reading 2018: How the Railroads Created Atlantic City

According to Dominick Mazzegetti, the railroads didn’t just make AC possible, they normalized the idea of the ‘vacation’

2018 summer dominick mazzagetti
The writers and editors at NJ Spotlight like to take advantage of the August slowdown to ease back on the throttle themselves and spend more time with family and friends. While we’re recharging, however, we’ll be posting an excerpt from a book or author with a New Jersey connection every day as part of our Summer Reading series. We’ll be back rested and ready on September 4. Have a great Labor Day and keep reading.

The first Camden and Amboy Railroad excursion to Atlantic City — more a map to be filled in than a nascent metropolis — carried 600 passengers. Two decades later some 300,000 summer visitors flocked to the seaside resort — to promenade along the Boardwalk and rub shoulders with the swells or be reinvigorated by the restorative properties of the saltwater and bracing air, as Dominick Mazzegetti recounts in “The Jersey Shore.”


Railroads, Atlantic City, and Long Branch

The railroads gave birth to Atlantic City in 1854.

In 1850 Atlantic City did not exist. Absecon Island was a large and relatively deserted island among dozens of sedge islands, unreachable without considerable effort and discomfort. The Unalatchtigo who traveled to the island each summer had stopped their journeys long before the summers of the 1800s and little activity occurred there until the first train unloaded its passengers across the channel from the island in 1854. The incredible rise of Atlantic City is directly attributable to the arrival of the Camden and Atlantic Railroad, which supplied the first tracks to the beach. In the decades that followed hundreds of thousands took the journey across the state to get to the beaches of Atlantic City from Philadelphia. A day-tripper could get on a ferry in the early hours of the morning, board a train at Cooper’s Ferry in Camden, and arrive on the beach in Atlantic City shortly afternoon. Tired and somewhat tanned, the day-tripper could be back home by evening. All for only three dollars! Thousands took advantage of this cheap luxury every
day, but especially on Sundays. And the rise of Atlantic City changed the destinies of Cape May, Tucker’s Island, and Long Branch, as well as dozens of stretches of barren sand all along the coast.

The Coming of Railroads and the Concept of “Vacation”

The story of railroads in New Jersey and the United States begins in the 1830s. It involves financial and real estate speculation, monopolies, fierce competition, overbuilding, bankruptcies, and some short-term and long-term successes. Speculation about railroads began in the early 1800s. Railroads
were being built in England and American businessmen saw the
potential for a freight line across New Jersey from Philadelphia to New York. Several groups petitioned the New Jersey Legislature for a license to lay rails across the state and permission was granted to the Camden and Amboy Railroad in 1830 for the 61-mile run. Investors quickly raised $1 million. In September 1833 the track was finished and the steam locomotive John Bull made its first run from Bordentown to South Amboy. For a short period, the Camden and Amboy had an exclusive license and the state shared in the profits. The monopoly eventually disappeared as demand and technology drove the development of this new and exciting mode of transportation.

Before long, railroad companies realized that passenger traffic could supplement their freight income and they offered cars to eager riders. The first passenger cars, made by wagon makers, had wooden benches and no mechanisms to soften the lurching starts or quell the rocking. Nor did these early cars have windowpanes to keep the noise and soot produced by the engine from entering the passenger cars. Nevertheless, the passengers came and the railroads were soon offering “excursions.” One of the first New Jersey excursion trains began service on July 4, 1835, from the docks at Elizabeth (where it picked up New Yorkers) to the Paterson Falls, for fifty cents per person. The investors and their marketers envisioned a
rising market for trains to other desirable locations. One man living near the ocean—Dr. Jonathan Pitney—understood
that thousands would pay for a convenient train to the beach and worked to make his vision a reality by bringing a train to a new resort in 1854: the beaches of Atlantic City.

At about this same time, a growing middle class in America began to demand time away from their workday lives. Prior to 1850 only the wealthy could enjoy the luxury of summer days or weeks outside of the cities. This began to change around 1850. The growth of railroads paralleled the growing concept of “vacationing,” a term that did not become popular in newspapers and magazines until that time. As one social historian put it, the railroads “fed the vacation industry” that was being generated by an enlarged middle class of “self-employed skilled artisans and famers . . . men who worked as professionals and small businessmen,” and “male
white collar clerks and middle managers.” In the next five decades, a vacation was seen as a status symbol and an entitlement for these folks. Easy and inexpensive transportation to New Jersey’s beaches made a vacation possible for middle
class citizens from Philadelphia and New York City. Tourist guidebooks recognized this change and touted the benefits
of destinations at the Jersey Shore and elsewhere in the country.

This … continued into the twentieth century as working class
men and women also came to expect and enjoy the possibility of one or more days and weeks away from the factory. Vacationing became a habit throughout America by the 1930s.

Atlantic City’s railroad monopoly only lasted for a short time, but it fueled the vacation boom by making a trip to the beach available to those who could not previously afford the luxury. Atlantic City entertained all comers, anyone who could afford the train fare from Philadelphia. The businessmen at Long Branch understood that their resort appealed to a different
clientele–high society from New York and Philadelphia—and
they recognized the need to make their resort accessible to trains as well. The Raritan and Delaware Bay Railroad reached Long Branch in 1860 and the New York and Sea-Shore Railroad arrived in 1865. In either case, however, passengers from New York City needed to take a steamboat ride to reach the train, emphasizing the more sophisticated crowd traveling to Long Branch. Cape May initially responded indifferently to
railroading and the first train did not arrive until after the start of the Civil War. Tucker’s Island and Long Beach had to wait even longer, until 1871, when trains arrived across the water
at Tuckerton. A short ferry ride took tourists to either island, but Tucker’s Island had to contend with its eroding geography. Long Beach only flourished after a trestle was built in 1886 to cross Barnegat Bay and tracks were quickly laid all the way down the island to Beach Haven.

In 1850, the population in Monmouth, Ocean, Atlantic, and Cape May counties totaled only 55,700, and few people lived by the ocean. No shore locations are separately listed in the 1850 census. Once Dr. Jonathan Pitney showed the way to tens of thousands of city dwellers, the shore transformed. In the next fifty years, as the shore became more and more accessible
for permanent residents and tourists, the population in these
counties doubled and continued to increase each decade thereafter at high rates. The fifty years from 1850 to 1900 saw amazing railroad construction that carried the growing populations in and around New York City and Philadelphia
to the shore for day trips and longer. Once the success of Atlantic City became evident, a few businessmen could raise enough capital to acquire the right-of-way, lay the tracks, build the bridges, and buy an engine to bring a railroad to their town, or they could persuade nearby railroads to extend lines to their town. Most often, the local real estate developers were
also railroad men working hand in hand.

Atlantic City

The visionary and driving force for a rail line to Absecon Island was Dr. Jonathan Pitney, a medical doctor active in local affairs who believed that a railroad would transform “Further Island” (as the island was also known) into a destination for recreation and healthy living. He believed strongly that sea air and saltwater provided significant health benefits to those able to spend time at the shore. Although many may have agreed
with his medical advice, only a few agreed with Pitney’s vision for Absecon Island. Pitney needed to persuade several businessmen along the road from the ocean to Camden to back his plan for a beach resort so that they could get cheaper transportation to the Philadelphia market for their manufactured goods. He enlisted Richard Osborne, a civil engineer, and several investors, including Samuel Richards, a local glassmaker and real estate owner, and Joseph Porter, William Cotton, and Andrew Hay, real estate holders and businessmen. Osborne laid out the train route and produced a map of the town and which he labeled “Atlantic City.” The
island at the end (or the beginning) of the railroad line was a wasteland in 1854 but several factors made the vision possible: first, the terrain between Cooper’s Ferry in Camden and Absecon was flat and unobstructed; second, Absecon Island was large enough to sustain a city; and third, the broad beaches along the ocean were free of dangerous undertows. Atlantic City, with its east-west avenues named for the states and its north-south avenues named for oceans, existed only on surveys when the first train arrived across the channel. Land on the island, sandy and barren except for pine trees, holly bushes, and bayberry, was gathered up by the promoters for as little as ten dollars an acre. The same promoters that organized the Camden and Atlantic Railroad joined together to form the Camden and Atlantic Land Company to engage in real estate development.

The railroad company built a wharf at the end of the line in Absecon to accommodate a ferry across the channel; a bridge for the train was not built until 1885. The 600 passengers on the first train on July 1, 1854, were ferried to the island and then shuttled by carriages to the half-finished United States Hotel
for a lavish reception, still covered in soot after the harrowing four-hour train ride from Camden. Even so, they were thrilled. It was an auspicious beginning even if this fabulous “city” had only seven houses. Three days later, on Independence Day, regular trains started running and the rush to the Jersey Shore began in earnest. Success was not immediate, but it came eventually.

A city needed to be built to fulfill Pitney’s dream and accommodate the crowds. Cheap labor was needed to make the vision a reality and itinerant workers began showing up on Absecon. The first trains brought construction workers and tradesmen as well as reporters, investors, and adventurous tourists. They lived year-round in a tent city that moved from
place to place for several decades as hotels, boarding houses, businesses, and homes were erected to accommodate and entertain the masses arriving on the trains. Several hotels
opened within two years of the first train, including the Surf House, Congress Hall, and the Mansion House, but in the first years after 1854, the concept of a cheap and easy trip to the beach created more of a stir than actual traffic. The trains were
slow, noisy, and filthy; accommodations were works in progress; and, flies and greenheads buzzed incessantly around those who made it to the beach. A mosquito plague in 1858 drove hundreds from the city. The Civil War also inhibited

By 1870, however, Atlantic City had become a phenomenon. A three-hour trip and cheap fares brought enormous crowds—300,000 people in that year. The trains had become more comfortable; hotels, boarding houses, and beach accommodations were in place; and the renowned flies on the beach were reduced. The city attracted day-trippers,
newly enfranchised vacationers, eager to escape overcrowded cities for even one day of cool breezes at the beach, which beckoned as they disembarked from the two C&A trains running each day. By 1880 Atlantic City had fifty hotels, dozens of boarding houses, and hundreds of homes. The term “shoebies”
was coined to describe the rail passengers carrying their lunches in shoeboxes on a day trip to the shore. The year-round
population of Atlantic City reached 14,000.

With such traffic, a second railroad line was built in 1877. The Philadelphia and Atlantic City (narrow gauge) was completed in just ninety days, the fastest rail-per-mile construction to date. And a third line to the city, the West Jersey Railroad, arrived from Newfield (near Vineland) in 1880. The three railroads competed fiercely and fares dropped from $3.00 to $1.50 and occasionally as low as fifty cents for the round trip. The third line, part of the Pennsylvania Railroad with connections throughout the country, brought the reality of visitors from faraway locales. Atlantic City was indeed a railroad town but the three companies could not sustain the competition. In 1883 the Pennsylvania Railroad bought out the original line, the
Camden and Atlantic, and that same year the Philadelphia and Atlantic City was sold at a foreclosure auction and became part of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. Nevertheless, as the years passed, the trains became faster and faster and the ride
became more and more comfortable, making it easier and easier to get to the beach and the fun on the Boardwalk.

Part of the original marketing pitch was Pitney’s claim that the sea air and saltwater had a therapeutic effect on the inflicted and invalid. Physicians would testify to this somewhat miraculous claim and often prescribed such a vacation for certain patients (as we will
see later in regard to the beginnings of the Wildwoods). All seashore resorts made the claim, but Atlantic City combined it with the idea that the city was comfortable and inviting in the winter months as well as the summer. An 1881 pamphlet entitled “Atlantic City as a Winter Sanitarium, Its Geology,
Climate and Isothermal Relations, and Its Sanitary Effect Upon Disease and Invalids,” covers the entire topic, including advertisements for the West Jersey Railroad, the Baltimore and Philadelphia Steamboat Company, Dukehart’s Porter (“a tonic and mild stimulant for the debilitated and invalids”), and a list of testimonials from Philadelphia doctors and their cured patients from around the country. The preface, addressed to
“Physicians,” tells the story: “The extraordinary sanitary benefit to be derived from a Winter’s sojourn at Atlantic City is so important to the invalid that the following pamphlet has been compiled for the information of Physicians and the benefit of Invalids.” Those said to achieve the most benefit were sufferers of “nervous affections,” as well as “chronic bronchitis, laryngitis, incipient tuberculosis, and also scrofula.”

The Boardwalk, first built in 1870, became a symbol of the city. It was destroyed by several storms and was rebuilt each time wider, sturdier, and longer. It was officially named “The Boardwalk” by the city council in 1896. An Easter Parade was started in 1876 to lure traffic from the Centennial Exposition held that summer in Philadelphia and the parade became
an annual attraction, viewed by 100,000 in 1905. Atlantic City boosters knew how to promote their city and they succeeded in making it a world-renowned resort by the turn of the century.

Atlantic City never achieved the sophisticated allure that characterized Long Branch in the late 1800s and its boosters did not seem to care. Rather than focus on the wealthy and sophisticated, the businessmen hyped their town and its attractions to the growing middle class who wanted to share
in the pleasures of the upper classes. In 1883, a reporter for the New York Times described the clientele: “patrons are all Philadelphians, of the small merchant and artisan class, who cannot afford the time or cash to go further away from home” so they rush to Atlantic City on a Saturday night for the “sideshows and attractions for boys.” Without question, the luxury hotels built along the Boardwalk entertained the better-heeled; but the small hotels and boarding houses further from the beach housed the not-so-well- off on vacation as well, perhaps for the first time. Atlantic City attracted and welcomed a diverse crowd and, in a strange twist, on the Boardwalk everyone dressed to the nines, making it difficult to tell who was who. For many, the thrill was a simple evening stroll on the Boardwalk, from end to end and elbow to elbow, to see and be seen. Some sociologists suggest that the city’s allure after
the turn of the twentieth century depended on the illusion of high society. That is, regardless of income status,
all people strolling along the Boardwalk or, better yet, being pushed in a rolling chair, were equals.

Entrepreneurs accommodated the crowds by building piers, the first in 1882, out from the Boardwalk over the sand and over the ocean, with games, amusements, rides, exhibits, and entertainment. The world-famous Steel Pier was built in 1898 and Young’s so-called Million Dollar Pier stretched 2,000 feet from the Boardwalk in 1903. By the turn of the twentieth
century, Atlantic City was loud, gaudy, and glitzy, offering slightly sinful pleasures all along the Boardwalk and out on its piers. Nelson described the Boardwalk as “entrancingly beautiful,” illuminated at night and throughout the year by electric lights. The “Casino” at the Boardwalk offered a swimming pool (“natatorium”), bowling alleys, shuffleboard,
reading rooms and sun rooms, a smoking room, and dressing rooms.

As the city matured in the twentieth century, Atlantic City became a place where ordinary folk could go to see the latest automobiles, witness wonders on the piers like the “diving horse,” and enjoy the greatest entertainers of the day. In the thirties and the forties, Broadway producers and stars could test a show on its way to New York. Mae West, Abbott and Costello, and Jimmy Durante performed, along with the best of the big
bands and the best singers. In the following decades,
Atlantic City welcomed Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (who created their partnership in Atlantic City), Milton Berle, Liberace, Dinah Shore, and Nat King Cole. Frank Sinatra played Atlantic City regularly in the 1950s. At its clubs, including the 500 Club, Club Harlem, Babette’s, and the Bath and Turf Club, patrons would be thrilled to share the space with celebrities like Joe DiMaggio, the Gabor sisters, and others
who were often on hand to be seen. Those who knew about them could visit gambling tables hidden behind the clubs so that the nightly entertainment could continue.

This excerpt from The Jersey Shore: The Past, Present, and Future of a National Treasure copyright © 2018 by Dominick Mazzagetti and used with the kind permission of the author and Rutgers University Press.

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