The Original Boardwalk Empire

Amusement Pier Pioneer John L.Young

By Todd R. Sciore

Long before casinos defined the Atlantic City, New Jersey skyline, amusement piers were the primary sources of entertainment for the beachgoing public. Extending into the ocean, the piers offered patrons a cornucopia of attractions with one outlandish operator often being the attraction himself. In a town whose history is filled with larger-than-life characters, the self-appointed “Captain” John Lake Young is both one of Atlantic City’s most colorful historical citizens and one of America’s beachfront entertainment pioneers. In author Nelson Johnson’s acclaimed book Boardwalk Empire, Young is referred to as “the resorts’ answer to P.T. Barnum” who despite his very humble beginnings, was blessed with a sharp business acumen. Nelson further states “The Captain knew his customers and gave them what they wanted…a high time at a bargain price – something to tell the folks about when they got home.” His showmanship and habit of incorporating “Young” into the name of his properties made him a turn-of-the-century version of a New York developer that came to town nearly a century later.

Young & McShea
John L. Young was born in 1853 and held a series of odd jobs, which included lifeguard, carpenter, police officer and carousel operator – the latter of which give him inspiration as he watched a daily stream of coins pour into the admission box. The gregarious Young eventually met and befriended his more reserved and well-heeled business partner Stewart R. McShea who had the capital to bring Young’s ideas to fruition. Their first venture was a skating rink turned merry-go-round purchased in 1888. While the two were opposites, they managed to find common ground with one classic example being Young’s desire to operate the carousel seven days per week while the more pious McShea respected the social custom of not conducting business on Sunday. They came to the mutual solution of purchasing religious music for the carousel organ with hymnals placed in the carousel seats so paying patrons could sing along.

Young’s Ocean Pier
Their creativity paid off when they amassed enough funds to acquire an entire pier and stock it with attractions. However, in 1900 the company found itself in chancery court for violating deed restrictions that called for the charging of only one admission fee to the piers (they were charging an admission fee to access the pier and additional fees for each of the various forms of entertainment). They installed one of the first amusement rides, a looping roller coaster dubbed the “flip-flap railway” which was a hit with patrons despite experiencing excessive G-forces due to its shape. They also developed and perfected what would become a mainstay attraction for Young himself to perform, the daily deep-sea net hauls. The pier burned down March 29, 1912, however, always one to seize the moment, Young charged curiosity seekers a small admission to get a closer look at the destruction and watch it get dismantled and hauled away.

Young’s Million Dollar Pier
Despite his prior success, Young’s last project was his most ambitious – the Million Dollar Pier which opened in 1906 and supposedly derived its name from the development cost.

The pier featured a theater, various rides, an aquarium, exhibit hall and the world’s largest ballroom at the time. However, it was The Captain himself and his famous net haul that really wowed patrons. It consisted of a large net being raised from the ocean and as Nelson indicated, “as he lowered the net to floor of the pier, Young went into his routine of identifying the sea animals he had caught. He was able to name as many as 48 species and bluffed on the ones he couldn’t…it was an animated performance that mesmerized his customers”- many of whom were land locked city dwellers who had no idea whether The Captain was right or wrong.

Ever the showman, Young had his personal residence built at the seaward end of the pier and it was also an attraction of sorts. It was an extravagantly ornate Italian style villa complete with statuary and the pretentious mailing address of No. 1 Atlantic Ocean. It is here where Young was able to fish out of his window while he entertained the likes of Thomas Edison and U.S. President William H. Taft. The Million Dollar Pier drew some of the biggest names in entertainment during its heyday and also served as a campaign stop for national elections with Taft and Teddy Roosevelt both making appearances.

Young died in 1938 but his memory lives on as the story of Atlantic City, and that of beachfront amusement piers cannot be told without telling the rags-to-riches story of The Captain.

The Original Boardwalk Empire