Talk about boardwalks and almost everyone has a favorite and memories to share. Growing up in New York City and on Long Island, boardwalks were part of my everyday life at the beach. My connection to boardwalks, however, goes back generations.
Both my great-grandmother in 1911 for her second marriage, and my grandparents in 1924, honeymooned in Atlantic City and captured their special occasion with a photograph taken on the Boardwalk. After the war, my grandparents returned to Atlantic City with my mother, spending Thanksgivings at the Traymore in the late 1940s, then a resort hotel on the Boardwalk featuring ocean views and an indoor and outdoor swimming pool!
It was most probably my grandparents’ love of the beach and boardwalks that led them to purchase a summer home in 1950 on the south shore of Long Island. At the time, Atlantic Beach was a small town of mostly summer residents, known for its stretch of private beach clubs and resort hotels tracking parallel to the Town’s roughly 1.5 miles of coastline and undeveloped, private beaches. Running overhead and connecting these clubs, hotels, and beaches was a mile-long elevated boardwalk that stretched to the southern tip of Long Island. This is the town where my mother spent her summers and I grew up.
Our boardwalk in Atlantic Beach was quiet and commerce-free; a great place to safely ride your bicycle away from beach traffic, and watch the sunset over the ocean. But it was the Long Beach Boardwalk, in the next town over, that was the place to be, day or night! Roughly two-miles in length, and built in 1914, the Long Beach Boardwalk in its heyday featured arcade games, food stalls, game parlors, souvenir stands, rides, fireworks, hotel lounges, and live entertainment; the Atlantic City of Long Island for summer residents and tourists.
The first “boardwalk” in America was laid in 1870 as a solution to a problem for the developers of Atlantic City. Hoteliers of the new posh hotels going up along the beach were tired of sand being tracked into their lobbies. Beach sand was also a problem for the Atlantic City-Camden Railroad from its passengers returning home after a day at the beach with sand on their person and possessions. And while hotel guests loved the idea of enjoying the beach from their ocean-front hotel room, they were surprisingly uncomfortable taking off their shoes to walk on the sand. The solution was a mile-long wooden walkway from the beach to the town that would lay over the sand, and could be taken apart and stored when the season was over. By the turn of the century, this wooden walkway, now elevated and several miles long, had gone from a novel solution to a pesky problem to a popular tourist attraction with rides, shops, food stalls, entertainment, novelties, and rolling chairs. Its popularity soon got other developing seaside communities thinking…
In 1873, Rehoboth Beach, Delaware opened its first boardwalk, running the full length of the oceanfront to support the Town’s vision of building a Christian seaside resort. Over the decades it has been destroyed, rebuilt, and reconfigured by storms, but today this one-mile-long wooden boardwalk is flanked by the same types of eclectic shops, restaurants, and family amusements that made Rehoboth Beach another popular seaside resort by the turn of the century.
In 1902, Ocean City, Maryland built a boardwalk after several hoteliers decided they and their guests needed a way to walk easily between their places of business while enjoying the view of the ocean. The result was a wooden walkway that was removed at high tide and stored on the hotel porches. In 1910, a more permanent boardwalk was created for the visitors and residents of Ocean City. It originally ran five blocks but was extended the following decade. When the boardwalk was destroyed in the great storm of 1962, it was rebuilt to its current length of three miles. It remains a popular attraction and throw-back to its family roots, with rides, food stalls, and other family amusements.
Coney Island, New York was another small seaside town with resort aspirations. Conversations around a Coney Island boardwalk were first brought up in 1890 as a way to connect and unite the different sections of Coney Island under development, and to attract tourists to this emerging resort destination. The economist Simon Patten, a boardwalk proponent, told the Town that the construction of a similar boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey had helped to revitalize the formerly rundown waterfront there. The first portion of The Riegelmann Boardwalk, named after Brooklyn borough president Edward J. Riegelmann, who led its construction, opened in 1923, with further extensions in 1926 and 1941, as well as several modifications and repairs throughout the 20th century. Today, this legendary Boardwalk with its famous wooden roller coaster and Coney Island Hot Dogs stands ready to make memories with a new generation of fans.
Although boardwalks were primarily an east coast thing, another early boardwalk amusement park opened in 1907 in Santa Cruz, California. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk helped to connect the bathhouses and resort hotels going up along this popular stretch of beach. Soon, concessions sprang up including restaurants, curio shops, and photo stands. Today, the Boardwalk is the oldest amusement park in California and one of the last seaside amusement parks on the west coast. Its Giant Dipper roller coaster and Looff Carousel are both National Historic Landmarks and the entire Boardwalk property is a California Historic Landmark.
Although many boardwalk areas fell on hard times in the decades after WWII, they are being revitalized today. The movement is so popular, in fact, that Myrtle Beach, South Carolina spent well over $12 million to build a boardwalk in 2010 because visitors expected a beach resort to have one. People want the nostalgia that a stroll down a boardwalk on the beach delivers, stopping along the way to enjoy an ice cream cone and watch the waves roll in.