Atlantic City’s Inlet section was once a tourist’s dream
ATLANTIC CITY — When casino gaming first came to Atlantic City in 1978, with promises of revitalizing the city, one of the first areas that community leaders had wanted to see reborn was the city’s Inlet section.
And that would be both sides of the Inlet, north and south.
At the time, the South Inlet sat mostly barren and vacant, its homes demolished and its lots cleared during an ill-fated urban renewal scheme in the mid-1960s, championed by Pauline Hill, then director of the city housing authority. It was dubbed Pauline’s Prairie, and while it did remove blight, it also ended the South Inlet as a thriving neighborhood. Much of it sits vacant to this day.
The North Inlet, however, still had all the trappings of decay and urban blight that Hill had hoped to erase into the ’60s. Constructed to out-of-date building codes, subject to a constant series of suspicious fires in the ’70s that left many buildings gutted, and just overall general decay, the remnants of a once proud neighborhood sat like empty brick ghosts.
Today, mostly through housing projects and demolition funded and supported by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) in the North Inlet, and casino projects such as the Showboat, Taj Mahal and the ongoing Revel project in the South Inlet, both areas have staged comebacks, even if there is further to go.
But like so much of the “old” Atlantic City before the resort’s decline in the ’60s, the Inlet can only hope to regain the stability it once had.
From the early days of the city through the 1950s, the Inlet was a solid working-class neighborhood buttressed by summer rentals and home to many of the city’s workers.
“It was really a wonderful neighborhood,” says Tom Hulme, a native city resident who still lives in the city and has studied the Inlet’s glory days. “It was mostly residential, but there were a lot of taverns and businesses mixed into the housing. But mostly, there was the boating.”
Ah, yes there was the boating.
There was a time when the Inlet was the other side of the Boardwalk, touted as just as popular as the city’s central tourist district.
And that tradition started in the city’s earliest days. In 1876 the Camden and Atlantic Railroad built a pier and two-story pavilion at Maine and Caspian Avenues.
Buoyed by a host of “Inlet Captains” who offered sightseeing tours, fishing trips and ocean cruises, the area was a tourist haven.
“You have to remember that taking a boat ride was a big deal back then,” says Hulme. “Only the very rich had boats. Now, everybody and his brother has a boat, but in those days people never got much of a chance to get out on the ocean. It was almost a once in a lifetime experience.”
The captains would form the Atlantic City Yachtsman Association in the 1870s and lease dock space from the railroad until 1935, but the tradition would endure through the ’70s.
From 1964 to 1979, Hulme worked on those boats, or more specifically for one of the most famous Inlet Captains, Clarence Starn.
Starn, whose Inlet career started in the 1920s, would eventually be as famous for his iconic Inlet restaurant, Captain Starn’s, as for the sailboat fleet he ran touring the waters around Absecon Island. The site was called Captain Starn’s Restaurant and Boating Center.
Starn had actually moved his sailboat operation to the Steel Pier at the center of the Boardwalk, when an opportunity presented itself.
Purchasing the Inlet site from the railroad, he would open Starn’s in 1940, with the restaurant’s dining room on the first floor of the original pavilion.
From the start, Starn’s was one of the city’s last must-see attractions.
“It was like a mini-circus,” says Hulme. “They initially even had porpoises in a tank there, but they found that they didn’t winter well here. So they let them go and brought in sea lions. They stood up better in the winter and became a tradition.”
The Catanoso brothers were already seasoned amusement-park veterans when they reopened Atlantic City’s Steel Pier with 14 rides in 1993, a scant 22 days after signing a five-year lease that extended to the year the famous Pier turned 100.
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