Once a gambling capital on the East Coast. Now a city with the largest unemployment rate. Atlantic City’s history has always been a bumpy road. Full of great ups and downs. Much like Las Vegas, its past is full of mischief, mafia, and casinos. Discover how Atlantic City became the casino hub it is today and learn about some of its most interesting phases.
The Founding of Atlantic City (1850 – 1900)
Before Atlantic city was founded and incorporated in 1854 it was just a small and simple seaside spot. Full of natural beauty with a prime position along the Atlantic Ocean in New Jersey. During this time only a single hotel resort occupied the Absecon Island (former name of Atlantic City) called the Belloe House.
Nonetheless, Dr. Jonathan Pitney, considered the father of Atlantic City, viewed Absecon Island with a very ambitious outlook. To Pitney, who was a physician, the area was a perfect healing seashore vacation spot. He and his partners invested in the idea and built the Camden & Atlantic Railroad. A railroad that ran along Atlantic City’s shoreline, connecting it to Philadelphia.
The increased access to the area combined with new attractions, such as the brand new boardwalk would bring more than 500,000 visitors a year to the city. Soon, hotels and other resort properties flourished like nowhere else in the country. This huge influx of new visitors hungry for entertainment paved the way for illegal gambling rings that would bring many ups and downs to Atlantic City.
Prohibition Era (1900 – 1945)
Although the Prohibition era was a nationwide constitutional ban on alcohol, casino games, and sports betting, it was also the era where Atlantic City thrived the most. After the passing of the 18th amendment, Atlantic City began its golden years.
Due to corruption at basically every level of government and law enforcement, alcohol and underground gambling was widely available in the now infamous Atlantic City. One of the most vocal and corrupt politicians was Enoch L. “Nucky” Johnson. Many city officials such as Johnson did not fear speaking out publicly. They would on the contrary boast about their local approach, calling Atlantic City “The World’s Playground.”
“We have whiskey, wine, women, songs, and slot machines. I won’t deny it and I won’t apologize for it. If the majority of the people didn’t want them they wouldn’t be profitable and they would not exist. The fact that they do exist proves to me that the people want them.” – Enoch L. Johnson
The First Downfall – WWII (1945 – 1970)
Following the end of World War II, many resort destinations saw a drop in visitors including Atlantic City. With the rise in crime and demolition of apartment buildings, Atlantic City also saw a decline in residents during the 1960s. A large number of the city’s hotels were also abandoned and demolished and the city was a poor shell of itself.
Only three of the dozens of hotels and resorts that once lined the boardwalk remain. In spite of this stagnation, Atlantic City would once again grow and become a beachside gambling mecca on the East Coast.
Legalization Of Casino Gambling (1970 – 1979)
In 1970 is when the city started changing for the better. Millions of dollars were spent on a campaign movement to legalize gambling to save the city. Even the Press of Atlantic City endorsed it as the answer to Atlantic City’s economic problems.
For the first time, residents of New Jersey decided to vote for a gambling referendum. Although it was just a state lottery, it was the first and major step towards the East Coast gambling hub we know today. Approximately four years later, the first statewide referendum on casino gambling was held. Though it failed, it did so by the slimmest of margins.
Two years later, savvy New Jersey businessmen drafted a new referendum. This new legislation focused on limiting casino gambling to Atlantic City. It passed by a margin of twenty points. With the new law in place, many existing hotels began converting into casinos, and new hotels along the boardwalk were built.
During those days this was no small ordeal since the only other legal casinos in the United States were in Nevada, about two thousand miles away. Although the legislation was passed by the residents, it remains a controversial topic. Many people think legalized casino gambling would only increase poverty in the city.
The Trump Resorts Casino Hotel Empire (1980 – 2000)
The city of Atlantic City was captivated by a new face with a lot of money around 1983. Before becoming the 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump was a property developer based in New York City who turned Atlantic City into a branded empire in about eight years.
The celebrity status that Trump and other financiers gave Atlantic City during this period was one of their greatest achievements. Due to Las Vegas’ popularity, the city had difficulty attracting tourists. To combat this, Donald Trump brought big boxing names to attract tourists to the city.
Mike Tyson, for example, fought the majority of his fights in Atlantic City during the 1980s. Trump’s properties would moreover host other wildly popular shows such as WrestleMania. As a result, these highly sought-after events would put Atlantic City on the map. A gambling capital that would rival even the famed Sin City.
By the end of the 1980s, Atlantic City had become one of the most popular vacation destinations in the United States.
The Rise of Borgata (2000 – 2010)
In 1999 the Trump era was coming to an end as the Trump Regency/World’s Fair closed after a few years of back and forth with the bank. Trump also filed bankruptcy on both his publicly-traded company and Trump Entertainment Resorts five years later. His downfall left plenty of room for a new company to take over.
The Atlantic City casino industry was quickly taken over by none other than Steve Wynn. Thanks to the visionary leadership of the casino resorts mogul, Borgata opened as AC’s first-ever Las Vegas-style casino in 2003.
Borgata was a complete game-changer. Both Borgata and Trump’s Bally’s Atlantic City boasted over $600 million in gaming revenues that year. In 2005, Borgata’s earnings grew close to $700 million, a number that beats any of Trump Entertainment Resorts.
The Second Downfall – East Coast Competition (2010 – 2020)
From 2010 and onwards the gambling culture in America, including online gambling, reached new heights every year. As gambling became more widely accepted, gambling games ceased to be stigmatized and stopped being seen as so much of a taboo. In spite of this, it would work against the Atlantic City casino scene. More and more resorts were built on the East Coast and online casinos also became much more prevalent.
The popularity would slowly dwindle and in 2014, casino revenues were now down for seven straight years. The state of the resort city was far from Atlantic City’s golden age and a large number of casinos started closing down.
Another huge factor was the generally poor economic condition of the US due to the great recession in the late 2000s. Ever since then the city has been constantly downsizing and even has the highest unemployment rates in America (24% in 2020).
The Future Of Post-COVID Atlantic City Casinos (2020 – Now)
To add insult to injury, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the final nail in the coffin. In March 2020, the casino scene experienced the longest closure in Atlantic City history. Gambling establishments wouldn’t be reopened until more than a year later. Nowadays, the city is cursed with aging and abandoned buildings, an outdated road network, crippling poverty, and an alarmingly surging crime rate.
What happens in the future to the former “World’s Playground” is unknown. With the city’s financial future increasingly in doubt, one wonders if it will still exist in another couple of years.
To even stand a chance at coming back, Atlantic City would need a major makeover. It needs a way to highlight its natural beauty and other non-gambling attributes to separate from the rest. A Vegas-level change, like the one that happened in the 90s during the mega-resorts era.