When the Pier Was Young

Young's residence at No. 1 Atlantic Ocean - where the Pier at Caesars stands today. Below, the early nets.

They gathered twice daily for the best show in town. All manner of fish plucked from the deep spilled onto the deck, as the crowd leaned on the wooden railing and gawked. But the most striking species in view was the maker of the feast, Captain John L. Young, who stood there in his straw hat and pantaloons, and lectured on the wonders of the sea. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of marine life, which he revered in ways perhaps more spiritual than commercial. Man, he insisted to onlookers above the scaly slippery mound, was descended from the fish.

Million Dollar Pier's deep sea net haul launched in 1907, a year after CPT Young's new pier opened, but the spectacle already had become a staple at his Ocean Pier farther uptown. He had joined other investors to build the latest amusement pier, which reflected his vision and bore his imprint. Young - captain by acclamation only - was a promoter and an empire-builder, and for decades, Million Dollar was one of Atlantic City's chief attractions, and the site of the captain's imperial residence.

Born in Absecon in 1853, John Lake Young came to South Atlantic City (now Margate) and found work as a carpenter, reportedly helping to build the immortal Lucy the Elephant. Later a policeman in Atlantic City, he teamed with a retired baker to cook up some business projects on the Boardwalk. The two men operated bathhouses, a carousel, and a shooting gallery before acquiring Applegate Pier at Tennessee Avenue. On this structure, later expanded and renamed Ocean Pier, Young built a nine-room Elizabethan cottage that enabled him to "fish out the kitchen window," so he said. One report had him landing 30 pounds of fish the first day he tossed in a line.

All of this, though, was just a warmup. Young promised a pier that would "cost a million dollars," and on the new extravaganza, which extended into the ocean 1,775 feet from Arkansas Avenue and the Boardwalk, he built a three-story Italianate villa complete with conservatory and classical statuary. An international butterfly collection embedded in plate glass captured visitors in the reception hall and dining room. Fishing chum Thomas Edison had a hand in designing the exterior lighting for Young's marble mini-palace, whose address of No. 1 Atlantic Ocean was an official stop on the U.S. Postal route.

The pier itself was a glorious profusion of pennants, towers, and elongated galleries. It attracted stars, statesmen, and, of course, paying customers. Roller skaters scooted on the ballroom floor beneath strings of lights that swept up to the ceiling. The likes of Lily Langtry strode the boards of the Hippodrome stage. Famed operetta composer Victor Herbert, a friend of one of Young's partners, headed the marquee on occasion. In town to address a convention in 1911, well-fed President William Howard Taft dined at No. 1. The next year, bitter rival and Bull Moose candidate Teddy Roosevelt - one of history's great upstagers - drew an overflow crowd for a campaign speech.

In the 1930s, Million Dollar hosted circus performers, dance marathons, western shows, a smorgasbord of popular entertainment. Young, who wintered in Palm Beach, Fla., died there in 1938, and impresario George Hamid leased the pier for the next 10 years. Hamid's Million Dollar Pier stayed busy with big bands and show business headliners. In 1949, fire claimed the front of the pier, including the huge ballroom. The following year, a new operator installed amusement rides on that site, creating the pier's 1950s profile. The great rooftop Seagram's sign ran electrified "horses" round an oval, an amusement all its own that prompted betting on the Boardwalk.

The original company that Captain Young had helped establish sold Million Dollar in 1963, and it changed hands again in 1969. The next year, the Hippodrome was demolished without a single wailing note from the departed minstrels and musicians who had played there. A 1981 fire took the ocean end of the pier, speeding the development of the ship-shaped Ocean One mall. Now The Pier at Caesars is recasting the site for the 21st century.

The ol' captain, no doubt, would be stunned by the scale and special effects of the current enterprise, though Million Dollar was of considerable size and did boast the Wizard's lighting effects. But that daily net haul, where has that gone? Where are those startling creatures of the deep?

That's evolution for ya.

Jim Waltzer's Tales of South Jersey, co-authored by Tom Wilk, is published by Rutgers University Press.