Atlantic City sits on the northern tip of Absecon Island, originally inhabited by the Lenni-Lenape Indians who used it in the summer months in their trek through the marshlands to the bay.
Englishman Thomas Budd was the first recorded owner of the island, as of the 1670s, when the mainland property was valued at 40 cents an acre, and the beach just four cents an acre. A hundred years later, the first permanent structure was built on the island by settler Jeremiah Leeds, at what is now Arctic and Arkansas Avenue, becoming the first official resident. By 1850, there were seven dwellings, most owned by Leed's descendents, but things were about to change dramatically.
Just four years later, in 1854, the Camden-Atlantic City Railroad completed construction and the first train arrived, the beginning of a steady stream of tourists who began to visit the coast. Its population grew, and its footprint enlarged to include the basic grid and street names that exist today: any street parallel to the ocean is named after a body of water, such as Pacific, Atlantic, Baltic, Mediterranean, Adriatic, and Arctic, while the streets which run east to west are named after the States.
By 1878, the railroad to Philadelphia was constructed, bringing even more people who came to stay in one of the many elaborate and impressive hotels that now graced the city. Growth came even more quickly after that, and the first eight-foot wide wooden Boardwalk was built in 1870, so named after railroad conductor Alexander Boardman, who, with hotel owner Jacob Keim, conceived the structure as a way to control the ever-present sand. Over time, the Boardwalk was rebuilt and expanded until, before the 1944 hurricane, it was seven miles long and extended from Atlantic City to Longport, through Ventnor and Margate. Today, the combined Atlantic City and Ventnor Boardwalk is the world's longest, at almost five miles long and 60 feet wide, built to withstand future storms with reinforced steel and concrete.
Atlantic City quickly became the hottest resort destination on the East coast, experiencing phenomenal growth through the early 20th century, much of it elaborate and expensive summer homes. The world's first ocean amusement park, Ocean Pier, was built in 1882, followed by several other famous piers including the Steel Pier in 1898, also used as an amusement pier, and the Million Dollar Pier in 1906, now the Pier Shops at Caesars. Elegant hotels drew guests from around the world, including Haddon Hall, the Traymore and the Marlborough-Blenheim, followed by Brighton, Chelsea, Shelburne, Ambassador, Ritz Carlton, Mayflower, Madison House, and the Breakers.
The city catered to its visitors with entertainment of every stripe, including marathon dance contests, various side show acts, vaudeville, and in 1921, the advent of the first Miss America pageant, the beginning of almost a century of Miss America contests held in Atlantic City. After World War II, the city became a beacon for Hollywood glamour, glitz, and the Mob, embodied by the 500 Club where Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin appeared together for the first time, and Frank Sinatra played every summer until the early sixties.
By the Sixties, however, Atlantic City was in serious decline like many East Coast cities after World War II, its tourists few and far between and its neighborhoods in deterioration. Urban decay is always complex to analyze, but some factors could be the increasing availability of the car to middle class families, allowing families to come just for a day, rather than the weeks-long visits that had been the norm. In addition, jet service to other premier resorts became available, and perhaps the general shift of population westward toward warmer climates had an impact.
Many of the elegant hotels were closed or converted to apartments or nursing homes, and in the 1970s and 1980s, many more were demolished. Of all the early resorts along the Boardwalk, only the Claridge, the Dennis, the Ritz Carlton and the Haddon Hall still exist.
In an attempt to revitalize the city, the Casino Gambling Referendum Act was passed in 1976, beginning a new boom cycle through the construction of casinos and the expansion of the gaming industry in town.