Asbury Park, begun after the Civil War as a Methodist retreat community, soon lost its Christian character to become one of the most famous amusement centers in the world.
In 1870 a vision came to a wealthy brush manufacturer who was visiting the Jersey Shore to recover his weakened health after Civil War service. James A. Bradley stood at the edge of the Long Pond and looked north to the other side. He saw sand dunes, scrub pines, briars and thickets, hundreds of acres of it, all bordering the glittering Atlantic Ocean. The following year he bought 658 acres of it stretching north to the Great Pond, or what is now Deal Lake. He set about building a city, a great shining city on the sea.
Bradley envisioned a city devoted to healthy living and Christian values. He laid out a town of house lots and public squares with manicured gardens. He built houses, large and small, hotels, and boarding houses, and donated land for a school and a library. On March 4, 1874, Asbury Park, named for the Methodist bishop, Francis Asbury, was made an incorporated borough.
Across Wesley Lake (Long Pond) was the Methodist Camp Meeting town of Ocean Grove. Barges run by pulleys transported fashionable parties from both towns across the lake. Small pleasure boats called gondolas also ferried visitors in either direction. Later pedestrian bridges were built across the lake. Ladies carrying parasols and gentlemen in tops hats strolled across the bridges and along a walking path around the lake.
The first hotel was built in 1873 and by 1878 there were eight large hotels and hundreds of boarding houses. The 1879 Coleman Hotel had a dance hall and bowling alleys. By 1897 it was an independent city. By 1904 there were 800 hotels in Asbury Park. The original boardwalk was made of planks strung together and rolled up at season's end.
At first, visitors arrived by a special carriage James Bradley dispatched to Long Branch six miles away. In 1875 the New York to Long Branch railroad line was extended south and livery carriages met guests at the train station to carry them to their hotels. In the summer of 1883, 600,000 arrivals by train were recorded. In 1887 the resort’s first electric trolley car system was established. This was the first in New Jersey and only the second in the nation.
In 1880, the promenade boardwalk opened with elevated viewing areas and benches. An ancestor of the roller coaster, a roller toboggan, was in place by 1880, and one of the earliest Ferris Wheels in America, along with a Merry-Go-Round came a few years later.
Beach pavilions were placed along the boardwalk and extending out over the water, where concerts were held, such as those by John Philip Sousa’s orchestra and the Arthur Pryor band. Sailing, fishing, and bicycling were popular pastimes. By 1904, the boardwalk had 4,500 oceanfront bathhouses and 1,000 rental lockers.
In 1894, James Bradley was elected state senator on an anti-gambling, anti-alcohol ticket. He voted to outlaw horse racing, which effectively ended the preeminence of the nearby Long Branch resort once Monmouth Park was closed.
Bradley sold the beachfront in 1903 to the City of Asbury Park, then valued at $1 million, for $150,000. The transfer set the stage for the birth of the one of America’s greatest 20th century amusement park resorts.