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Boardwalk Empire: Atlantic City and Coney Island

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A classic summertime escape

The Bowery at Coney Island.
The Bowery at Coney Island.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Welcome back to Period Dramas, a column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.

During the 19th century, seaside life became quite popular—just look at the summer homes of Elberon, New Jersey, or the mansions of Newport, Rhode Island. But the 19th century also saw the invention of another iconic beachside structure: the boardwalk.

“The first boardwalk at Atlantic City started out as a temporary structure,” says David Schwartz, author of Boardwalk Playground: The Making, Unmaking, & Remaking of Atlantic City. “Beachgoers were trekking sand into hotels, which annoyed hotel owners. Obviously, the hoteliers couldn’t prevent guests from going to the beach, so they came up with another plan.”

Atlantic City boardwalk in 1903.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Hotel owner Jacob Keim and railroad conductor (sand was also an issue in train cars) Alexander Boardman devised a plan to lay boards down on the sand. Vacationers were then directed to walk on the boards so that they wouldn’t bring sand indoors.

And so, in the summer of 1870, the first boardwalk at Atlantic City—and the first boardwalk in America—came to be. It quickly caught on, but remained a seasonal attraction—and fixture.

“In September they would basically pack the boardwalk up and store it until spring,” says Schwartz. “In 1880, a new boardwalk was built. The first one was about 10 feet wide, but the second one was widened to 14 feet.”

The Atlantic City boardwalk with a hotel in the background.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Subsequent iterations of the boardwalk widened as it gained popularity: “In 1890, they finally built a 24-foot-wide boardwalk, with actual railings. It went from Caspian Avenue to the east all the way to Albany Avenue to the west.”

By this time, Atlantic City was shedding its identity as a purely summertime destination. The boardwalk’s success—and with it, the construction of amusement piers, like the famous Steel Pier—helped to push the season into the wintertime and up through the spring, when there would be Easter parades on the boardwalk.

Steel Pier at Atlantic City.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

A few decades later, in New York City, another boardwalk would come to be—in the reaches of Coney Island.

“The first ferries start running to Coney Island in the 1840s, but the big era of amusement parks comes in the 1890s into the 1920s,” says Nick Juravich of the New York Historical Society. “The sort of boardwalk, in so far as there’s a place where you could walk on boards, was called ‘The Bowery.’ It wasn’t on the beach, it was this street that basically ran between the various theaters and amusements and it was a densely packed.”

The Atlantic City boardwalk during the late-19th century.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Juravich explains that as trains to Coney Island arrived in the early 20th century, the privately managed beach became very busy. Beachgoers had to pay to go to a bathing pavilion. “It was expensive and crowded,” adds Juravich.

The city responded by proposing in 1912 to build a boardwalk to essentially reclaim the beach. “This is an era full of urban planning for everything from the creation of parks and new laws around tenements and public health,” says Juravich. “It’s a progressive-era idea that the beach needs to be managed and that people have a right to the beach.”

This argument between about beachfront ownership went up to the Kings County Supreme Court, who ruled in 1913 in the favor of the city. The bathing pavilion era was over. Construction on the boardwalk began in 1920 and lasted for three years, around the time subway service arrived in Coney Island.

The entrance to Luna Park at Coney Island.
Photo by Hulton Archive / Stringer at Getty Images

When the boardwalk opened in May of 1923, it was 80-feet wide and 9,500-feet long. Just a few years later, it was extended by 4,000 feet to the east. Juravich says that people started to call it “Coney Island’s Fifth Avenue,” and “the promenade,” among other things.

“By the time the subway reached Coney Island, they called it the “nickel empire” because it was 5 cents to get to Coney Island, 5 cents to get a hot dog, and 5 cents for most of the rides.”

The Coney Island boardwalk from above.
Photo by Sam Shere/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Juravich went on to say that the boardwalk New Yorkers know today is a slightly later incarnation. In the 1930s, Robert Moses moved the boardwalk back about 300 feet to enlarge the beach. The beach wasn’t the only thing that grew in size: The boardwalk also gained an additional 1,500 feet in length.

“That’s the boardwalk we know today—one that still functions as ‘every man’s riviera,’ says Juravich. “It’s one of the most accessible seaside attractions—beaches—in the city.”