The History and Traditions of One of America’s Favorite Boardwalks
By Arielle Patterson, with updates by Julie Matthews
Earning top honors on countless “Best Boardwalks” rankings, the Ocean City Boardwalk is one of the East Coast’s premier destinations in the summer. Home to fabulous shops, amazing attractions and marvelous restaurants, this award-winning boardwalk comes from humble beginnings.
Before the Boards
Before vacationers populated the boardwalk, Ocean City was a sleepy fishing village until the Atlantic Hotel opened its doors to visitors in 1875. Legend has it that in 1902 several oceanfront hotel owners came together to construct a wooden walkway for the convenience of their guests. Simply known as Atlantic Avenue, this was the start of our boardwalk. In 1910, a permanent promenade was built that ran five blocks, then that was expanded to 15th Street in the 1920s.
The Evolution of the Boardwalk
The boardwalk we see today is filled with novelty T-shirts, ice cream stands and plenty of amusements and games. At its start, the boardwalk was a promenade and people would come dressed to impress. For roughly 30 years, the boardwalk was the place to be seen. Beauty parades marched down the boards while live music played from the bandstand on the beach.
By the 1950s, the boardwalk had been extended to 26th Street and the culture started to shift. The live music crowd faded away, ushering a new opportunity for amusements. City council initially did not want the new franchise to develop, but eventually gave in allowing the carnival-style amusements and concession stands to open at the lower end of the boardwalk.
Throughout history, natural disasters and other incidents have ravaged the boardwalk. Locals and business owners used each tragedy as an opportunity to expand and improve the boardwalk to be even better than before.
For three days in March 1962, a devastating nor’easter destroyed the boardwalk on what would be known as the “Ash Wednesday Storm.” The storm, with high flooding and strong winds, demolished homes and businesses, washed away sand and sent pieces of the boardwalk floating across town. When the boardwalk was rebuilt, it was expanded upon with the downtown portion being made of concrete.
During the mid-1960s, there was a shift in the atmosphere on the boardwalk. People no longer dressed in their Sunday best, and the boardwalk became a casual destination for everyone, much like we see now.
Today, with the addition of more and more attractions and hotels, the boardwalk extends to 27th Street. In 2012, the boardwalk underwent a complete renovation with all new wooden boards replacing the ones that had begun to deteriorate in order to keep in step with the same old-time, nostalgic feel.
Recently the boardwalk has undergone a facelift, with the replacing of old decking between 27th and 15th Streets, followed by re-decking the inlet and pier area as the first phase of the renovation project. In the 2022 off-season, sometime in October, the second phase of the boardwalk renovations are planned for 15th Street to the pier and should be completed by April 2023. These regular repairs to the boardwalk help keep it in top shape for its many visitors, whether they are walking, riding a bike or the tram.
You can still hear the old-time melodies, as children spin round and round on the carousel. The Herschell-Spillman carousel, one of the oldest fixtures on the boardwalk, is the oldest operating carousel in the country. While the sounds on the beach have changed since the bandstand days, you can still hear live music almost every night. From free concerts to annual events, the Ocean City boardwalk is full of life—day or night. You’re just steps away from a live band or street performer.
Events on the Boardwalk
Every May, beachgoers get a taste of summer before the heat arrives at the popular, free Springfest. Indulge in local food vendors, enjoy live entertainment and browse the stunning arts and crafts. These are just some of the many activities and attractions that await.
While you walk the boardwalk in June, hear jets soar above you during the Ocean City Air Show. The beach and boardwalk are your seats to this outstanding air show.
Wind down the summer season at Ocean City’s largest festival, Sunfest. This free event on the boardwalk is perfect for experiencing local art, entertainment and food. Sunfest also features the Sunfest Kite Festival, where master kite flyers showcase their skills.
Through all of the changes our boardwalk has undergone, the only thing that hasn’t changed is the excitement that awaits vacationers. As you walk on the boardwalk, remember the history and get ready to make some memories of your own.