To the inquiry, ‘Whence came Atlantic city?’ we reply: It is a refuge thrown up by the continent building sea. Fashion took a caprice and shook it out of a fold of her flounce. A railroad laid a wager to find the shortest distance from Penn’s treaty elm to the Atlantic Ocean; it dashed into the water an a city emerged from its train as a consequence of the maneuver.
— Heston Handbook, 1895
Before the boardwalk, before the shore was riddled with hotels, amusements and beach bathers, before rickety railcars carried sweltering city-dwellers to the refuge of the ocean, Atlantic City was nothing more than a destitute strip of land. Sand dunes and scraggy grasses cluttered the isolated coastline which lay undisturbed by none except the occasional wanderer. The first man on record to make this primitive island a permanent home is Jeremiah Leeds. In 1793, Jeremiah built a cabin on the island—making him the first resident of what would become Atlantic City—and slowly acquired control of the unoccupied island. Only seven more cabins were erected on the island in between the years 1793 and 1852. Below is a map of New Jersey created in 1845. The transparent yellow dot shows Absecon Beach. The string bean shaped island near the text will soon become Atlantic City.
(Jeremiah Leeds died in 1838. His grave is located in Northfield, NJ, a town about 8 miles away from Atlantic City on the mainland. The grave still exists today.)
In 1820, Dr. Jonathan Pitney became a resident of Absecon Village located on the mainland across from the island. Pitney, a well-connected and important citizen, realized the island’s potential, and in 1852 he encouraged a group of Philadelphia capitalists to scout out the island with him, convinced that the tiny island could be transformed into a great watering place if only transportation were available…