America’s (Other) Playground

Pity poor Atlantic City. At best, it has always been considered a lesser sibling, a poor cousin even, to Las Vegas. In truth, without Atlantic City, there would be no Vegas, but the New Jersey holiday spot just can’t get no respect. We take a look into the 150-year history of this storied town, the ups and downs, and how Atlantic City is coping with the modern age.

Abescon Island

Absecon Island was a quiet place. A chain of sandy islands that form parallel to the coast, the island was first settled in 1785 by a man named Jeremiah Leeds. Others soon arrived and used the land for light farming and shellfish fishing. It was not until a young doctor by the name of Jonathan Pitney visited the area in 1819 that anyone considered that more could be done with the place.

Pitney’s vision was to turn Abescon Island into a health retreat, believing that the bracing sea air and minerals to have wonderful benefits. To that end, he set up his practice there and spent his time attempting to improve the area. After a shipwreck in 1837, he lobbied for and helped to set up a lighthouse, and with the help of civic engineer Richard Osbourne, put together plans for a town. These plans were put before railroad investors, and before long, the Camden and Atlantic Railroad was constructed in 1854. Atlantic City was born.

Nucky Thompson and the Boardwalk Empire

Before long, the new town of Atlantic City was thriving. There was a slight problem with sand blowing into the lobbies of the hotels, so residents built a wooden walkway between the door and the sand to mitigate the issue. These ‘boardwalks’ proved to be incredibly popular and they were widened and lengthened. At their height, they covered seven miles and were a hugely popular tourist attraction.

One of the first sheriffs of Atlantic City was a man named Smith Johnson. He took up the post in 1886 and became one of the key political figures of the area. He was succeeded by his son, Enoch Thompson, also known as “Nucky”.

Anyone who has watched the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” knows what happened next: Prohibition. The enactment banning alcohol across the whole of the USA came into force in 1920 but was largely ignored by Thompson who now ran Atlantic City. The town became one of the central ports for the import of bootleg liquor, and this obviously led to business deals with some of the country’s most feared gangsters. In 1927, Thompson arranged a meeting between the heads of these crime families in Atlantic City. Among those present were Al Capone, Dutch Shultz, “Lucky” Luciano, Meyer Lansky and a young man by the name of Bugsy Siegel. Surely it had to be the example of Atlantic City that inspired Siegel to make plans in Nevada.

The difference between the fictional story of Thompson and the reality is that while he dealt with criminals and imported illegal liquor, Thompson was not a bad man. He never killed or ordered anyone killed, never ran his own distilleries and did not get caught up in the various turf wars that broke out during that time. Nor was he murdered, but instead died in a old folks home in 1968.

A Serious Competitor

After World War II, Atlantic City found itself in a bit of a slump. The economy declined, many of the classic old hotels were torn down and crime flourished as people decided instead to go to Las Vegas. It was not until 1970 when a referendum in New Jersey allowed a state lottery. At the time, only Nevada permitted legal gambling. When the law was passed finally in 1976, it was by the slimmest of margins. But pass it did, and in 1978, Resorts Atlantic City became the first casino to open in Atlantic City and remains open today.

This led to a casino construction boom during the 1980s, and by the end of the decade, a dozen casinos could be found in Atlantic City. Visitor numbers were up and the casinos were booming. At the end of 1988, revenues in Atlantic City were larger than in Las Vegas – $2.73 billion to Vegas’s paltry $1.94.


Enter the current president of the United States. Donald Trump had a huge amount of involvement with Atlantic City. In 1990, he owned three of the 12 casinos there, and did a huge amount to boost tourism and income, which peaked in the mid-noughties. He promoted his properties incessantly, arranging for four Mike Tyson heavyweight fights to be held in Atlantic City (instead of Vegas) and convinced the WWF to hold their Wrestlemania events there. The third casino, Trump Taj Mahal, featured an opening night concert from Michael Jackson and at opening, was the largest casino in the world.

The good times lasted about a year. 15 months after opening, the Taj Mahal filed for bankruptcy. One year after that, the other two were in Chapter 11 proceedings. The three were consolidated into Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, but that went bankrupt too. He tried the trick again, changing the name to Trump Entertainment Resorts. Five years later, THIS went bankrupt as well in 2004. Oh, and again in 2011. Trump’s wild Atlantic City adventure was over.

Life in the Old Dog Yet

In 2006, revenues reached a high of $5.2 billion. This was as good as it was ever going to get for Atlantic City. As more and more states allowed regional casinos, there was no need to travel all the way to Atlantic City or Vegas to gamble. By 2014, one-third of Atlantic City’s casinos had shut down. This did not mean that new casinos were not being built. In 2007, construction began on the Revel Casino, what was supposed to be a $2 billion casino with towers and rooms for 15 thousand guests. The Revel opened two years over schedule, was $1 billion in debt within the year and closed two years after that.

This could have gone on for a few more years before people finally gave up on Atlantic City. But a recent change may offer the beleaguered town a lifeline. In 2010, the State of New Jersey issued a challenge to the law banning gambling on sporting events. The State passed a Sports Wagering Act in 2012. This now allowed sportsbooks to be operating in Atlantic City casinos and racetracks.

With the change in law, came another attempt to keep Atlantic City alive. In June last year, the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City (formerly the Trump Taj Mahal) and Ocean Resort Casino (formerly the Revel). With this and the sports betting, things are slowly – very slowly – returning to profit. Profits had declined steadily up until 2016 but stabilised in 2017 with a fractional 0.3% profit. It remains to be seen whether Atlantic City can return to the glory days where it was America’s Playground.