Atlantic City is hot with summer temperatures and fresh attractions.
The latter includes the opening of the new Hard Rock Cafe with its headlining performers and Score’s strip shows at the former Trump Taj Mahal. Then there’s the new Ocean Resort at the former Revel, the new ferris wheel at the end of Steel Pier, Tropicana’s new Chelsea Tower, a biergarten (next to the Tropicana), and sports betting at casinos.
So it seems the old Atlantic City slogan of “Always Turned On” has been turned on again after several years of not-so-hot news that included the closings of several casinos, hurricanes, and state takeover.
And now the seaside health-resort turned once-hot gambling-destination — before more East Coast states and cities got into the game — is casting its die again and crossing its proverbial fingers.
But in a way it is all business as normal. Atlantic City was always a crapshoot.
As Dominick Mazzagetti explains in the new book “The Jersey Shore,” Atlantic City was pretty much always an idea. In fact its existence and name was brewed up by a mid-1800s medical doctor who envisioned a railroad line from Philadelphia to a “wasteland” known as both Absecon and Further Island.
Dr. Jonathan Pitney’s idea was 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.”
Since good ideas are one thing and good financing is another, Pitney needed to persuade businessmen to get on board. And, as lawyer and former deputy New Jersey banking commissioner Mazzagetti notes, several factors made the vision possible: The terrain between Cooper’s Ferry in Camden and Absecon was flat and unobstructed. Absecon Island was large enough to sustain a city. And the broad beaches along the ocean were free of dangerous undertows.
Whatever the reasoning it was enough for investors to take a gamble — hopes, hype, and not much more were thrown. And when the visitors first arrived, “Atlantic City, with its east-west avenues named for the states and the north-south avenues named for the oceans, existed only on surveys.”
What also existed were the promoters picking up as much property as possible and the start of the Camden and Atlantic Land Company to engage in real estate developments.
A work in perpetual progress from the start, Atlantic City opened on July 1, 1854, with 600 passengers traveling on the Camden and Atlantic Railroad to the end of the line in Absecon and “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.”
Yet, as Mazzagetti notes, consumer hankering was high. And the visitors “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.”
This “eventuality” was despite some hard actualities that included cheap laborers living in tent cities, work-in-progress accommodations, slow trains, flies and mosquitoes, and the Civil War.
But by 1870 AC flipped its on switch on and became a phenomenon. “A three-hour trip and cheap fares brought enormous crowds — 300,000 people 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.”
A decade later the city had 50 hotels, hundreds of homes, a year-round population of 14,000, and a second rail line that brought thousands of “shoebies,” day tripping passengers who packed lunches in shoeboxes.
Atlantic City seemed to hit its stride in the early 20th century as a resort town and reinvented itself when other towns were being hit by a new law. “Prohibition proved a boon for Atlantic City,” notes Mazzagetti. “Its reputation as a ‘wet town’ become well known and kept hoteliers and local businesses in the black during the Depression, even in the winter months, as a playground for the connected and licentious in Philadelphia. The city’s ruling elite benefited financially from the liquor trade, along with gambling dens and houses of ill repute.”
With a nodding reference to the popular HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” and a great distance from Dr. Pitney’s vision, Mazzagetti says real-life mayor “Nucky Johnson established an understanding with the mobsters handling the booze that ensured them safe passage, using the police force to make sure that their activities were undisturbed. The extent of the city’s mob connections was dramatized by the May, 1929, convention of mob bosses hosted in Atlantic City by Johnson that included Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, Meyer Lansky, and Al Capone.”
So it seems no surprise that when Atlantic City eventually saw competition from other resorts and amusement centers, an aging hotel system, and changing public interests, it switched on the gambling and was ready to try other switches — as with the hot attractions that will get plenty of hype.
And while many will participate and enjoy the new venues and offerings, for some of us — I was frequent visitor in the 1960s and even lived in the city for a time in the 1970s — there are several overlooked attractions that turn a light on the old Atlantic City and let it shine in its own special way.
One is the Absecon lighthouse. At 171 feet it’s the tallest lighthouse in New Jersey. It is also linked to Dr. Pitney, whose decade-long petitioning of the U.S. Lighthouse Service resulted in an 1854 appropriation from Congress. Its builder was George Meade, who in addition to becoming a prominent and expert American lighthouse designer who designed three of New Jersey’s famous lighthouses — Cape May, Barnegat, and Absecon — gained fame as the Civil War general who defeated General Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg.
The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1933 and by the 1960s reflected the city’s better days. Registered on both the state and national historic registries, the lighthouse became a candidate for renovations with support from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, New Jersey Historic Trust, and the City of Atlantic City. By 2001 it was artistically restored and opened to visitors who can climb its 228 steps to get a city and sea side view.
One of the summer attractions is the Thursday night sunset climb, with the last climb at 7:30 p.m., and a full moonrise climb.
Gardner’s Basin is another attraction. It is located on northern section of the island.
Promoted by the city as the “other Atlantic City,” this is a spot where instead of nightlife emphasis on is on water life.
With ample free parking, residents and visitors can easily step from their cars and try their luck with a fishing rod or hop on one of the fishing cruises.
But if one is just interested in observing rather than hooking a fish, then head to the Atlantic City Aquarium and its nautical attractions.
For some of us, a stroll around the area will return a memory: the famous Steel Pier diving bell with ads that promised visitors the opportunity to look at the wonders of the sea through its small porthole window — but only provides a gaze into the murky coastal waters.
Other attractions include the Back Bay Ale House, an old-school bar and restaurant open all year that provides an old-city ambiance in the area where the once tourist-must-visit Captain Starn’s Restaurant stood. For information and seasonal hours, call 609-449-0006.
For another old AC food experience head south to the White House Sub Shop. This no-frills spot held together by grease and celebrity photos is a time capsule founded in 1946.
Divided between a counter with stools and a row of booths, the interior has seen little change over the years from the 1970s, except for the new floors and refrigerators added after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. There are also some new celebrity photos added to the wall that includes greetings from White House fans ranging from Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, and even former casino owner Donald Trump — all reminders of what an entertainment center Atlantic City was and is.
Yet its real claim to fame is a great sandwich made with both a touch of attitude — wait too long to order and you’ll get a free sample — and the bread: the 20-inch loaf from Formica Brothers Bakery, located on the same street and having some sort of mo-jo that gives it a fresh taste and texture of its own.
Also added, according to an Atlantic City Press reporter, is the daily quota of 150 pounds of onions and 200 to 250 tomatoes a day to make their number one seller, the Italian Sub at $14.60 whole. Estimates are that more than 25 million have been sold. Their second best-seller? The cheese steak at $16.50. The White House is located at 2301 Arctic Avenue. Here’s the website: whitehousesubshop.net.
Other guides have some good advice too, including Dock’s Oyster House and the newer Arts Garage near the strip of outlet stores. It all adds up to the reality that AC is more than the hype and offers some real winnings for those looking to try their luck outside the casinos.
Yet when in doubt, just head to the famed boardwalk. It has been attracting millions of people since it first opened in 1870. And it is there that one gets a whiff of the same thing that got Dr. Pitney willing to take a chance — fresh air from the sea. And that’s something always turned-on.