The travel and tourism industry owes itself to many historical “firsts.” In 1782, Scottish engineer James Watt invented the first steam engine able to turn wheels. On May 10, 1869, the completion of the first transcontinental railroad was commemorated with the driving of a “golden spike.” In 1794, the City Hotel opened in New York City, making it the very first building in America specially built for the purpose of being a hotel. In 1900, the first cruise ship, the Prinzessin Victoria Luise, was built. DELAG, the world’s first airline, was founded on Nov. 16, 1909.
And on this day in history – June 26, 1870 – the very first section of the Atlantic City boardwalk opened along the Jersey Shore. Located on Absecon Island, the boardwalk was also America’s first.
Dr. Jonathan Pitney, who thought the island would be a good spot for a health resort, first developed the area in the 1850s. With the help of civil engineer Richard Osborne, the construction of the Camden-Atlantic City Railroad began, and on July 5, 1854, the first tourism train arrived from New Jersey.
Because encroaching sand was a problem, a local railroad conductor and hotel owner petitioned the city council asking that a mile-long footwalk be established. The city used its tax revenues to build an eight-foot-wide temporary wooden walkway from the beach into town that could be dismantled during the winter. In 1880, the boardwalk was replaced by a larger version. More than a decade later, Steel Pier was added, which included a large amusement park.
To get an idea of what sunbathing was like during the early days of the Atlantic City boardwalk, check out this video from 1901 filmed by Thomas Edison.
These historic images from the Detroit Publishing Company also give a good idea of the boardwalk and beaches around the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
As a way to keep tourists around past Labor Day, the Atlantic City Pageant debuted in 1921 and featured bathing beauties vying for the Golden Mermaid trophy. Miss Margaret Gorman of Washington, D.C. won the first title. From this contest the Miss America pageant was born.
During Prohibition, Atlantic City was a hotbed of activity, with bootleg booze, gambling and other vices appealing to the revelers of the city.
In the 50s and 60s, the boardwalk was popular with stars of stage and screen, including Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin and Bing Crosby, to name a few.
Today, the Atlantic City boardwalk is known for its casinos, the first of which opened in 1978. And, the Jersey Shore remains a popular destination for locals and East Coast residents.
Travel and tourism are well documented in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division. The Panoramic Photograph Collection features many images of travel destinations such as amusement parks, beaches, fairs, hotels and resorts.