Atlantic City is now the gambling capital of the East Coast, but it has quite a storied history. Learn about some of AC’s biggest ups and downs over the years.
Atlantic City is the most prominent gambling center on the East Coast, but it’s had major ups and downs since its founding. Over its storied lifetime, Atlantic City has had humble beginnings in illegal gambling until property moguls built some of the best hotels and casinos of the modern era. Let’s explore some of the most interesting phases of Atlantic City’s development and see how it came to be the casino hub we know today.
Building the World’s Playground (1850 – 1900)
Back in the mid-19th century, Atlantic City was just a small seaside spot with prime real estate opportunities. Some of the first commercial developments included the city’s first hotel in 1853 called The Belloe House. The United States Hotel was owned by the railroad company that extended its line from Philadelphia through New Jersey to Atlantic City’s then-humble strip of sand.
Though the original idea from “the Father of Atlantic City” Dr. Jonathan Pitney was to make AC a health resort, developers kept building new hotels for fun in the sun. They even extended the boardwalks that were previously built anew each season to keep the sand from littering hotel lobbies. Making the boardwalks longer and available year-round invited even larger swarms of foot traffic to the beach resort hub in the 1870s that, when gambling was introduced, would have many ups and downs.
Underground Gambling and Prohibition (1900 – 1945)
Mixing alcohol and gambling can often be tricky, and this was no different during the turn of the century when the U.S. federal government started cracking down on liquor and other vices of the time. And even though the state of New Jersey previously dabbled in war-time lotteries during the Civil War and hosted horse races at the Freehold Raceway, the government banned gambling of all sorts in 1897.
Prohibition was passed into law nationally in 1919, but it wasn’t reinforced until 1920. However, local profiteers relished being able to provide Atlantic City guests anything they wanted — including illegal gambling houses — and make lots of money doing so. At guests’ disposal were speakeasies, underground casinos, slot machines, and the Italian lottery, aka “the numbers game.”
Louis Kuehnle was one of the very first racketeers in AC who had his own popular hotel and gambling house. Then Enoch “Nucky” Johnson rose to power.
He wore many hats in Atlantic City: a local political boss who ran the Atlantic City Republican Executive Committee following Kuehnle, giving him the ability to push pro-vice initiatives that led to AC’s boom during the Roaring ‘20s; a businessman who made money off of bad contracts; and a strong supporter of bootlegging, a role in which he made sure local businesses allowing drinking, gambling, and related vices of the time were conveniently overlooked by AC lawmen, just as long as he got a cut of the profits.
Overall, Nucky Johnson led many efforts to transform Atlantic City into a year-round destination with his insistence on allowing alcohol consumption and gambling (which people couldn’t do so freely anywhere else), coordinating bootlegging, and building a convention hall.
Once the Great Depression hit in 1929 and prohibition ended in 1933, Atlantic City started seeing its first downfall of visitors. Nucky and other profiteers were caught and jailed for tax evasion in 1941, officially ending his reign and halting AC’s immense growth.
Downturn After WWII (1945 – 1970)
Like many other destination towns, AC saw a steep drop in visitors after the end of WWII. Throughout the 1960s, Atlantic City also saw a decline in residents, too, with crime on the rise and apartment buildings being vacated and razed. Many of the city’s hotels were abandoned and demolished, too.
But after these few decades of stagnation, Atlantic City would once again build itself up and become the East Coast’s prime beachside gambling destination.
Gambling Legalized in Atlantic City (1970 – 1979)
In 1974, a majority of New Jersey voters turned down a referendum to legalize gambling in the state. This left Nevada as the only state with legal gambling and Las Vegas with no competition. But the citizens of Atlantic City saw an opportunity.
They rallied together to push for making gambling legal within Atlantic City, citing the potential for desperately needed economic prosperity. And in 1976, the referendum passed by a very slim margin, allowing for real estate developers, restaurateurs, and other business owners to once again build up this seaside destination.
At the end of the ‘70s, existing hotels added legal casinos, and real estate developers built brand new hotel-and-casino combo locations.
In 1978, Resorts Atlantic City was the first legalized casino to open, followed by Caesars Boardwalk Regency (which became Caesars Atlantic City) and Bally’s Park Place (which ditched the Monopoly-game moniker to become Bally’s Atlantic City) by the time 1980 rolled around.
Hotel and Casino Building Boom (1980 – 2000)
In the 1980s, Atlantic City was once again the site of construction and exponential growth. In the first year of the decade, Sands Hotel & Casino, Harrah’s Casino Hotel, and the original Golden Nugget, which later became Atlantic Club Casino Hotel, opened. In 1981, Del Webb’s Claridge Hotel & Casino was renovated from its 1930s original design and reopened. The Playboy Hotel & Casino and Tropicana Casino also opened that year. Then, the Showboat Hotel & Casino opened later in the decade in 1987.
Around 1983, a new face with lots of money came to Atlantic City. Before he was president of the United States, Donald Trump was a property developer from New York who transformed Atlantic City into his branded empire in the span of about eight years.
In 1982, Trump’s company broke ground on Trump Plaza and partnered with Harrah’s, who ran the casino portion of the property. Harrah’s at Trump Plaza, which later became known as Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino, opened in 1984. It was the biggest casino in AC history.
Then, Trump Castle, aka Trump Marina Hotel & Casino, opened a year later. By the end of 1990, Trump had also acquired Trump Taj Mahal after Resorts International failed to complete it and the former Playboy property (which, at the time, was known as Atlantis) to rebrand it as the Trump Regency.
One of the major successes during this time period was the celebrity status Trump and other financiers brought into Atlantic City. Many of Trump’s properties hosted A-list boxing matches and installations of the ever-popular WrestleMania series. The glamour of upscale hotel properties and access to must-see events created an air of exclusivity and lavishness that brought in more people than ever before.
Unfortunately, the sparkle faded away. The Trump Taj Mahal proved to be too risky a project when, after about 15 months, the company filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy on the property. Within the year, Trump also filed bankruptcy on Trump Plaza and Trump Castle. The property mogul combined all three properties and created the publicly traded company Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, giving him a bit more time to stay afloat.
The Rise of Borgata (2000 – 2010)
But in 1999, Trump closed Trump Regency/World’s Fair after a few years of back-and-forth with the bank and filed bankruptcy on both his publicly traded company in 2004 and his private company, Trump Entertainment Resorts, five years later. However, it wouldn’t be until 2016 when all of Trump’s investments in Atlantic City would be owned by other property developers. For example, Trump Castle is the new home to Golden Nugget Atlantic City; Trump Taj Mahal is now the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City; and Trump Plaza was demolished in February 2021.
With Trump on the down and out, this left plenty of room for a new company to reign in AC. In 2003, Borgata opened as AC’s first-ever Las Vegas-style casino, thanks to the industry genius of casino mogul Steve Wynn. Borgata offered 200 card tables and a dedicated poker room with more than 30 tables, making it stand out from its competitors that focused on providing as many slot machine options as they could.
And with poker rising in popularity after Chris Moneymaker’s underdog win at the 2003 World Series of Poker event, Borgata was already ahead of the curve when they had the chance to host various WSOP events. They even added 50 more tables to their poker room and became the East Coast’s poker destination.
Other prominent AC casinos added quality poker rooms, including Harrah’s with a 40-table room, and new casinos opened, like Revel Casino Resort (which is now Ocean Casino Resort) in 2007, to compete with Borgata.
However, some of AC’s long-standing properties shuttered their doors or removed gaming entirely. When Sands closed in 2006, the city was still raking in all-time-high profits. But things were getting shaky. A government shutdown in 2006 caused all Atlantic City casinos to close for three days. And even though Borgata maintained revenue, the city was actually reaching its peak before another big dip.
AC’s East Coast Competition (2010 – 2020)
Casino closures around the city brought about a phase of downsizing. Properties that stayed were renovated and rebranded, trying to give them new life. Resorts went back to Atlantic City’s Roaring ‘20s roots in 2011, possibly banking on the popular HBO series Boardwalk Empire based on Nucky Johnson’s reign of AC in the early 20th century.
Other states in the region legalized different forms of gambling and began opening their own casinos. In the mid ‘90s, Connecticut opened two casinos affiliated with Native American tribes, including the world’s second largest casino, Foxwoods. Delaware legalized casino gambling in 2009 and table game gambling in early 2010, leading to its three casinos appealing to slot lovers and poker, roulette, and craps lovers alike. In 2011, Massachusetts legalized casinos and opened a few, though some have closed permanently, and sold land rights for upcoming casinos.
One of AC’s closest neighbors, New York State, doesn’t have clear gambling laws, but there are a few Indian casinos with keno, poker, and slot-machine-like games as well as regular Class III casinos like those you’d find in Vegas with standard table games, video poker, and slots. But AC’s other close neighbor Pennsylvania has a variety of racinos, stand-alone casinos, and race tracks.
The rise in popularity of all of these neighboring casinos has impacted (and continues to impact) Atlantic City’s draw. This is likely to continue as the city downsizes and more and more states on the East Coast pass gambling laws and open casinos that can compete.
The COVID-19 Pandemic (2020 – Now)
On March 16, 2020, all of Atlantic City’s casinos closed due to government regulations to contain the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Then, on July 2, 2020, after 108 days of closures, casinos were allowed to open at 25% capacity, meaning revenue potential would be severely low. However, Borgata didn’t open until late July and allowed indoor dining at 25% capacity in September.
In accordance with changing CDC guidelines, Atlantic City allowed venues to open to 35% capacity in February 2021 and then 50% in May 2021 following the increase in fully vaccinated individuals and reduced regulations on mask-wearing and social distancing for vaccinated people.
Like the rest of the entertainment world, though, Atlantic City is on the edge of its seat to see how and when they can get back to normal.
Quarantines and mask mandates have made online casinos even more popular for chip stackers and slot enthusiasts alike. You can even find some of Atlantic City’s casinos online, like Borgata and Golden Nugget, to keep your spirits up until things get totally back to normal and AC is ready to welcome old and new players to their lobbies again.
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