As plans move forward to build a rail station that would more easily connect north and central New Jersey travelers to Atlantic City, it is worthwhile to remember just how important rail travel has been to the resort's development.

Rail historian Dennis Niceler puts it bluntly: "There would be no Atlantic City without the railroad."

The city's founding in 1854 was based on a simple calculation: Start at Philadelphia and draw a straight line to the Atlantic Ocean. Of course, building a railroad along that straight line was not as easy at it sounds.

"You're talking about going through the Pine Barrens and trees and scattered settlements and whatnot," said historian Allen "Boo" Pergament, of Margate. "Everyone thought it was a simple folly, but he pursued it."

"He" was Alexander Pitney, who developed the Camden-Atlantic Railroad in 1854 on tracks laid down almost exactly where the current Atlantic City Rail Line operates today. Pitney's partner, local businessman Samuel Richards, later split off and started his own company, the Philadelphia-Atlantic City Railway, also known as the "Narrow Gauge" line.

The fierce competition caused when that second line was built - parallel to the first, along what is now Reading Avenue in Mullica Township and Aloe Street in Galloway Township - led to fares being cut so low that even the working classes could afford a day-trip to the shore.

"During the rate wars, Philadelphia-Atlantic City Railway rates were down to 50 cents to a dollar," Galloway Township resident Niceler said, and that was before the discounts for "excursions."

"The price of a ticket went down the more people you could sign up for your group," Niceler said. "Excursions are what made Atlantic City and what made the railroads. It was a whole other way of attracting people."

Newspapers of the time would give detailed counts of how many excursion trains came by.

"Hammonton used to report 10 to 20 trains a day going through," Niceler said. "Some trains would not only lessen the price of a ticket for excursions, but if you filled an entire car, they'd give more money back. It was a great social thing, people coming to Atlantic City as a group."

African-American fraternal orders would book excursions, while some Irish-American groups were so large they had to break the travelers up into smaller groups, one in a 14-car train and another in an eight-car train.

‘That's 1,400 souls," Niceler said. "You can imagine that they controlled a huge amount of financial power."

The trip was not exactly luxury.

"These were ladies wearing as much as seven pieces of undergarments, dressed to the hilt, men dressed in three-piece suits, all sitting in this sweltering heat coming down on the train," Pergament said. "Plus, the smoke billowing in from the engine, and what else is coming in the windows but the greenheads and gnats? Those people endured an awful lot, but once they got here, they felt it was worth it to get to the relief and the fresh air of Atlantic City."

The railroad would run past several of the city's early large hotels, Pergament said, including the United States Hotel, once considered the largest in the country. Many made the trip all the way to the end of the line at Madison and Maine avenues by the inlet, where visitors could fish at a pier, charter a boat or see a concert at the two-story pavilion.

Another rail line, the West Jersey & Atlantic, was later built through Newfield, Mays Landing and Pleasantville, much of which was later converted to a bike trail. That line, Niceler said, was the site of a major crash in 1906 that killed more than 50 people and made headlines worldwide.

Eventually, however, the rise of the automobile - and the belated creation of half-decent roads - led to the decline of the railroad as the prime way for a traveler to get to Atlantic City.

"As far as I'm concerned, the tipping point was 1925," Niceler said, "when Absecon Boulevard (Route 30) was regraded and repaved. ... (Before) it was just a gravel road, and pretty tough."

The change to cars, Pergament said, "was pretty gradual. The Black Horse Pike, the White Horse Pike, the old turnpike, the expressway, they wanted to make it easier for people to come to the World's Finest Playground."

"It was a smart move," he added.

Contact Steven Lemongello:

609-272-7275