Steel Pier – The Most Historic Pier in America [Kicking Back with Jersey Joe]
It was once the most popular entertainment pier in America, featuring everything from Live TV, to Miss America, to big name stars. Anyone who was anybody could be seen at the historic Steel Pier, in Atlantic City, NJ. Once a victim of fire, neglect, and closure; the pier continues to reinvent itself with a wave of new additions.
Atlantic City’s Steel Pier officially opened the gates in Saturday, June 18, 1898 featuring movie theaters, dance halls, live performances, attractions, concessions, and sharpshooter Annie Oakley headlining the festivities. The pier was constructed on steel pilings and wooden beams at a cost of $350,000.
After being open for only a few short years, in 1904 a massive storm washed away a large portion of the pier and engineers at the time said it could not be rebuilt. Edward Bader (who would later become mayor of Atlantic City and have an airport named for him) took on the challenge and had his company reconstruct the pier for the following season.
The pier, along with Atlantic City itself, gained much popularity during the summer months as vacationers flocked to the beach. Atlantic City is easily accessible from New York and Philadelphia by rail and city goers were eager to relax at the beach and escape the hustle and bustle. The pier was full of attractions for the whole family. The reasonable prices kept the people coming back again and again.
In the early days, the pier was described as “an amusement city at sea” and “a vacation in itself.” The pier extended more than 1,621 feet out into the Atlantic Ocean and could accommodate large crowds gathering to witness the many acts.
The entrance featured brightly lit billboards like those that would take decades to catch on in Vegas. Spot lights would shoot beams into the air and the signs could be seen for miles. The big headliner of the day always had their name spelled out on signs with giant illuminated letters.
A-list performers over the years included Guy Lombardo, Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, Mae West, Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, Bob Hope, Amos & Andy, Al Jolsen, Paul Anka, The Rolling Stones, Ricky Nelson, and even Frank Sinatra who would pack in a record 41,000 people for a 1950 performance! (Nelson would break that in 1958 with over 44,000 people.)
One of the more famous acts was the High Diving Horse. A horse would walk up a long ramp onto a 40 foot high diving board and then leap into a 12 foot pool of water below. This attraction lasted for decades. Other regular acts included The Human Cannonball, The High Diving Hawaiians and Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly (who made national news in 1930 for setting a new world record for sitting on a pole for seven days).
Another popular animal act during the depression era was Rex the Water Skiing Dog.
Check out this vintage video of several pier performers, including the diving horse:
In 1921, the pier would host its first Miss America Pageant and would again from 1935 – 1939. The pageant would then move to Boardwalk Hall before leaving for Las Vegas in 2005.
After the depression, live television shows would broadcast from the pier’s. That includes many episodes of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand filmed in the Marine Ballroom.As auto and air travel became more popular for Americans, attendance took a big dip in Atlantic City and the Steel Pier. The big name stars were harder to get, but the diving horse continued on. The pier would face several major blows starting in March 1962, when a winter storm would cut the pier in half. A fire in December 1969 destroyed another third of the structure.
Even though New Jersey was battling to bring casinos to town to lure back tourists, the deal wasn’t done in time, and the pier closed in 1978 due to neglect and declining attendance. When the first casino, Resorts International, opened a year later, they purchased the pier, but a massive fire in 1982 completely destroyed it.
The pier has been rebuilt of concrete and shortened to 1,000 feet. Resorts would sell the property to Donald Trump to have high-rise condos built on the property across the Boardwalk from his Trump Taj Mahal casino resort.
When environmental concerns shelved the condo idea, the pier was reopened as a family amusement park with rides and games. THe hours were limited in 1992 but was functioning full time the following year.
While Trump owned the pier, Anthony Catanoso from Cape May, NJ leased the space to operate the rides. The Travel Channel would visit the town in the early 90’s to highlight the pier and promote tourism to the city. In 1994, Trump announces plans to turn the pier into a Six Flags style amusement park, but those plans never happened.
In 1997, a Broadway musical titled Steel Pier opened and earned 11 Tony nominations. The big budget show closed after only two months. The script and production rights were licensed to allow performances elsewhere, including schools.
As the pier celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1998, a serious accident captured national news headlines when a 180 foot steel support tower for the pier’s bungee cord ride collapsed, injuring four children.
As the new version of the pier catered to family friendly attractions, Trump again looked to build condos on the site. Rumors and announcements were made that the pier would close at the end of the 2006 season.Fortunately, our economy tanked and the Cantanoso’s were quickly able to resign a lease.
Finally in 2011, Trump gave up on the pier and decided to sell. The Cantanoso’s, who operated the rides there for more than two decades, were able to purchase the entire pier for $4.25 million, and have begun massive changes. The popular diving horse, which returned for a while in the 90’s, was announced to be back, but the idea was nixed after public outcry.
For the 2012 season, new decks, and several outdoor bars have opened allowing for beer and alcohol sales. A tent with an outdoor bar and performance area are now open at the very edge of the pier. Several new restaurants and patio seating areas have also opened with plans to keep the pier open year round.
An upper level flyover, which is connected to the Taj Mahal but never opened, is rumored to become a night club or restaurant. The Cantanoso’s definitely have plans for this unused space. Access to this walled off area is only available from a series of closed escalators on the upper level of the Taj.
The pier currently offers 24 rides for kids and adults. The famous Ferris wheel still offers spectacular views of the ocean and skyline. A double deck carousel, with Italian hand painted scenes of Atlantic City’s past is at the center of the action. A large sky shot ride which jets riders hundreds of feet in the air in only a few seconds’ challenges the most extreme riders.
Adding the outdoor bar decks, now give adults as well as children, a reason to visit. Single tickets can be purchased for $1 a piece (with most rides requiring several tickets). Coupon books are also available as well as wristband days on Thursday, which can cut down the cost.
With all the action heating up at the Steel Pier, Resorts Casino Hotel announced plans to rebuild the adjacent Steeplechase Pier. That pier, which opened in 1899 directly across from the hotel, featured an amusement park as well, but was converted into a heliport in 1986. Two years later, the entire pier is destroyed by fire and what was left was torn down ten years later. Only three food service trucks remain parked on the location.
Scenes of both piers were featured in the 1980 film Atlantic City, starring Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon.
Resorts just announced plans spend $6 million to rebuild the pier and add a Jimmy Buffet’s Margartiaville restaurant, 9-foot tall palm trees, island landscaping, an octagon shaped surf shop and possibly a rebranded area of the casino. A separate environmental permit filed with the state, includes plans for a beach bar, cabanas, two volleyball courts, a bocce ball court, two horseshoe pits and a fire pit. These plans are still in the very early planning phases and require many rounds of approval from various agencies.
If the Steeplechase project happens, it will immediately give the Steel Pier competition. But, will give tourists more options for entertainment on the famous Boardwalk.
Several shots of the Steel Pier are featured in the new Do AC commercial campaign currently airing on the East Coast.
Name: Steel Pier
What: historic amusement and entertainment pier
Location: Atlantic City, New Jersey
JERSEY JOE RECOMMENDS: Absolutely worth a visit. There is much to do for both kids and adults and the massive changes have made an immediate impact. The added adult attractions – were badly needed. This is the only true entertainment pier left in the city.
The owners of the Steel Pier need to do a better job advertising and getting the word out that a new pier is back in town. Little promotion has been done to advertise the new bars and restaurants and their website needs updated. I only heard about it through word of mouth from the locals.
I do sincerely hope it continues to thrive and it’s a plus that it the pier is now completely locally owned. Next time you’re in town, or are planning a trip, definitely add this place to your DO AC list! This is just one of a ton of new additions to the city!