This is What Tourist Destinations were 100 Years Ago
This is What Tourist Destinations were 100 Years Ago

This is What Tourist Destinations were 100 Years Ago

Larry Holzwarth - March 20, 2021

This is What Tourist Destinations were 100 Years Ago
Chautauqua proved popular in all of its manifestations amongst Americans in 1921. Wikimedia

9. Chautauqua reached its peak in the early 1920s

Chautauqua is more a movement than a single destination, though it enjoyed enormous popularity in 1921. The first Chautauqua site, organized in 1874 on the shores of New York’s Lake Chautauqua, offered an educational summer camp for families. It became known as the Mother Chautauqua. Its popularity led to the establishment of “Daughter Chautauqua’s” in communities throughout the United States. Finally, traveling Chautauqua’s were established. They traveled a prescheduled route, usually in smaller towns, and remained open for several days before moving on to another community. All offered lectures, speeches, entertainment, and other forms of diversion for participants.

Whether one traveled to a Chautauqua or attended one which came to their town, they proved highly popular during the summer of 1921. Often they were held near a body of water a la the Mother Chautauqua, which offered swimming, boating, and fishing to the attendees. Theodore Roosevelt called the Chautauqua movement both healthful and praiseworthy, stating it was “the most American thing in America”. Driven largely by the Populist Movement which arose around the turn of the 20th century, by the end of the 1920s it largely died out. Chautauqua enjoyed a brief resurgence during the Great Depression, though it never again reached the level of popularity of the 1920s.

This is What Tourist Destinations were 100 Years Ago
Venice of America, a popular tourist destination in Southern California in 1921. Wikimedia

10. Venice of America developed the reputation of the Coney Island of the Pacific

After draining the marshy lands to the south of Ocean Park, Abbot Kinney installed canals and built a small resort community. Besides the canals and bridges which crossed them, Kinney built Venetian-style structures throughout his resort. Gondolas plied the canals, manned by gondoliers imported from Venice, Italy. A pier jutted out into the Pacific, with various amusements for visitors. Kinney, a real estate developer and water distribution specialist, hired entertainments both educational (a marine aquarium) and decidedly low-brow (what were then known as freak shows). A miniature steam railroad conveyed visitors around the park, and a trolley brought visitors from Los Angeles.

Weekends and holidays saw between 100-150,000 visitors daily. It became a major tourist attraction for those visiting Los Angeles in 1921. Kinney died in 1920, and his heirs failed to maintain the standards he applied in operating his amusement area. In 1925 it became part of the City of Los Angeles. By then the canals were highly polluted, and the area largely run down. Most of the canals were drained and paved over by the end of the 1920s. Today’s Venice Beach community sits on what once offered a tourist an amusing diversion while visiting Los Angeles.

This is What Tourist Destinations were 100 Years Ago
President Harding camping with the Vagabonds in the summer of 1921. Wikimedia

11. Camping became popular among America’s rich and powerful in 1921

In midsummer, 1921, three American luminaries set up camp in Washington County, Maryland. They established their campsite on a farm, north of the National Road (today’s US 40) along a small creek. The three main campers were among the wealthiest and most influential men in America. They were Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Harvey Firestone. Their extended entourage included cooks, valets, fishing guides, hunting guides, and others essential to ensure adequate comfort while roughing it. The group had camped together before, and referred to themselves euphemistically as the “Vagabonds”. Having established camp on July 21, Ford, Firestone, and Edison departed on July 23 and drove to Funkstown, Maryland, to meet another member of their party and guide him to the site.

The fourth member of the party brought with him an entourage of about 40, including Secret Service personnel and at least 10 White House photographers. President Warren G. Harding had departed the White House that morning, intending his foray into the woods to receive adequate and favorable press coverage. It did. Harding’s camping trip and photographs of the President and titans of industry chopping wood and sharing stories over the campfire helped boost recreational camping in the United States. The site of their camping trip, which ended on July 27, 1921, is today part of Camp Harding County Park. Ironically, overnight camping in the park is not allowed, with the facility closing at 9 PM daily.

This is What Tourist Destinations were 100 Years Ago
Al Capone visiting Atlantic City, welcomed by Nucky Johnson, the city’s mob leader. Wikimedia

12. Atlantic City earned the nickname “The World’s Playground”

Atlantic City in the 1920s featured over 20 theaters, scores of nightclubs and speakeasies, more than a thousand hotels and rooming houses, and five ocean piers. During the summer months, the time of peak travel in America, nearly 100 trains arrived and departed daily. It was far from a family-oriented community, despite its wide, open beaches. The city’s political boss and the iron hand over Atlantic City’s rackets, Enoch Johnson, went by the nickname “Nucky”. Officially gambling, prostitution, and drinking alcohol were all illegal. Unofficially Atlantic City offered them all, in prodigious quantities, making it one of the most popular destinations on the East Coast. As Nucky reputedly said, “If the majority of the people didn’t want them they wouldn’t be profitable and they wouldn’t exist”.

For decades, Atlantic City thrived during the summer months and became a largely abandoned seaside town during the winter. In order to expand the tourist trade beyond the end of summer, in 1921 the city initiated the Inner City Bathing Beauty Contest. Eight newspapers across the country ran local contests, with winners appearing in Atlantic City. A sixteen-year-old girl from Washington DC won the first contest. The following year she appeared to defend her title, unsuccessfully. It was only after losing that she was referred to as the first Miss America. Atlantic City also claimed the first saltwater taffy, though the claim is disputed by several other east coast cities.

Check this out: Booze-Fueled Heyday of Atlantic City.

This is What Tourist Destinations were 100 Years Ago
The 1921 World Series drew visitors to New York from across the country. Wikimedia

13. Major League Baseball drew tourists to all of its franchised cities

The 1920s was the first Golden Age of Major League Baseball in the United States. Called the National Pastime, it was far from a National Game. Its most Northern outpost sat in Boston, its most Southern in Washington DC, and it went no further west than St. Louis. Professional minor leagues, amateur factory leagues, community leagues and others presented baseball outside of the Majors. Yet the Majors drew tourists to their ballparks, arriving in the cities by train and automobile simply to see a ballgame played by the heroes they knew from newsreels and newspapers. Throughout the country, fans flocked to cities where the Yankees’ Babe Ruth appeared. That year, the World Series featured the New York Giants against the New York Yankees.

For the World Series of 1921, the Pennsylvania Railroad and its rival, the New York Central, altered the schedules of their trains and added cars to accommodate the increase in passenger traffic. Thanks to tourist levels, hotels throughout the New York area sold out. Fans traveled from the West Coast, from Cuba, and from Mexico to watch the games. Most came to see Ruth, who did not appear in the final three games, other than as a pinch hitter in the final inning of the series. He hit into a groundout. The New York Giants won the series, the first-ever in which the Yankees appeared. To date, they’ve played in 40, winning 27 of them.

This is What Tourist Destinations were 100 Years Ago
New York’s Times Square circa 1921. NPR

14. New York’s sights and sounds made it a tourist destination

New York City offered the average tourist multiple choices of amusement and entertainment in 1921, among them the fabled Plaza Hotel. Tourists visited the Statue of Liberty, toured the fabulously lighted Times Square, and enjoyed excursion cruises around the harbor. Beginning in the preceding decade, Times Square shed its former reputation of being a lair for thieves and prostitution. In 1921, theaters, hotels, restaurants, and music halls surrounded the neighborhood. The city’s piers and wharves teemed with arriving ships, discharging and taking on passengers. Penn Station and Grand Central station became tourist attractions, both for the amenities they offered and for their architecture.

Intrepid motorists could take the Lincoln Highway, the first paved road to cross the entire United States, from its eastern terminus at Times Square, to its western, at San Francisco’s Lincoln Park. To do so required completing a drive of over 3,300 miles. It also required the use of ferries to exit Manhattan Island, the Holland Tunnel to New Jersey then being under construction. The neighborhood of Harlem offered jazz music and revues, and more often than not, illicit liquor for those so inclined. They weren’t alone, New York’s famed 21 Club also operated as a speakeasy, as did establishments too numerous to count. New York City, well-connected by rail, roads, and the sea, served as a destination for tourists and migrants from other American states, as well as immigrants from Europe, throughout the 1920s.

This is What Tourist Destinations were 100 Years Ago
Cincinnati’s Coney Island offered steamboat excursions to the park from the city’s Public Landing. Wikimedia

15. Americans enjoyed amusement parks across the country

From the east coast to the west, and at hundreds of stops in between, Americans enjoyed amusement parks in 1921. They bore little resemblance to the successors which exist a century later. Rides were more sedate, funhouses and sideshows predominated, and they resembled county fairs in many cases. Some became nationally well-known, such as Hersheypark in Pennsylvania, Cedar Point near Sandusky, Ohio, and Cincinnati’s Coney Island. The latter used the Ohio River to provide the water for numerous water slides and offered steamboat excursions to and from the city’s Public Landing for patrons. Resort hotels and campgrounds surrounded many of the parks, catering to the out-of-town trade.

The 1920s saw a boom in the construction of roller coasters in many of the parks, with competition for the highest crest, the steepest plunge, and the fastest speed. Nearly all were built with wood. One, named simply Roller Coaster, which first opened in 1921 at Lagoon, remains in operation today. Lagoon, located north of Salt Lake City near Farmington, Utah, also offered horse racing in 1921, as did several other amusement parks. The combination of amusements offered by nearby water in which to frolic, rides and funhouses, picnic areas, and gambling, enticed Americans to amusement parks throughout the country in the 1920s, with the largest becoming tourist meccas.

This is What Tourist Destinations were 100 Years Ago
Hollywood Boulevard at Highland Avenue, circa 1921. Pinterest

16. Hollywood, California drew tourists to admire the homes of movie stars

Films of the silent era created a new type of celebrity, the movie star. Up until the arrival of film, actors and actresses were generally regarded dimly in the United States. Acting, especially for women, as a profession carried the taint of amorality, especially across the American South and Midwest. New England, with its long history of Puritanism, largely frowned on actors and the theater as well. Motion pictures began to change attitudes towards the profession in the 1920s. Movie stars such as Clara Bow, Lillian Gish, Charles Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Douglas Fairbanks, Laurel and Hardy, and scores of others became national and, in some cases, international celebrities.

Tourists in 1921 and throughout the ensuing decade (and the years since) began to flock to Southern California to visit Hollywood. Motivated by the desire to see the flickering images on the silver screen in person, they purchased maps which marked the locations of their idols’ homes. Guided tours of areas where the stars lived, as well as of the studios in which they worked, emerged, popular among film fans. The great Hollywood sign did not exist in 1921, but the area already served as a magnet for a star-struck tourists, as well as for aspiring actors and actresses. California’s welcoming climate and other attractions led many to stay there.

This is What Tourist Destinations were 100 Years Ago
The Mammoth Cave Railroad conveyed tourists to the cave from Park City, with multiple stops on the way. Wikimedia

17. Americans enjoyed exploring caves during the 1920s

Luray Caverns in Virginia, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, Ohio Caverns in Ohio, and numerous others, particularly in Appalachia, became popular tourist destinations in 1921. Once again, the automobile played a role in their increased allure, making them more easily accessible. Most are operated privately, with guides provided by the owners. In Kentucky, beginning in 1921, competition between owners for tourists’ money led to a period known as the Kentucky Cave Wars. Unscrupulous owners hired men and boys called Cappers. The Cappers encountered tourists and misled them into believing their destination cave was closed, offering directions to the caves owned by their employer. Mammoth Cave, at one time, participated in the cave wars.

Visiting caves became popular for several reasons, one of which being they offered a naturally cooled diversion on hot and humid summer days. Being in rural areas, they afforded the opportunity for their owners to construct campgrounds for both tents and auto camps. Many caves across the country remain in private hands. Mammoth Cave became a National Park in 1941, after several improvements in the area were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Touring caves and other natural wonders, such as the Shenandoah’s Natural Bridge, were popular among travelers a century ago, and have remained so ever since.

This is What Tourist Destinations were 100 Years Ago
Tourism in Hawaii led to the construction of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, known as the Pink Palace of the Pacific. Royal Hawaiian Hotel

18. Hawaii became a tourist destination in the 1920s

For most of the 19th century, visitors to Hawaii consisted of merchant seamen, fishing vessels, and occasional notables interested in the islands and their people. Among the latter was Mark Twain, who arrived at the islands in 1866 while working as a reporter. Twain’s visit, intended to be about four weeks in length, lasted for over four months. For the rest of his life, he spoke and wrote of the islands in glowing terms. Yet tourism to the islands lagged. Accommodations were scarce, and that available was expensive. A trip by steamship from San Francisco took about a week. Only the wealthy could afford the time and expense of a journey to the islands.

In 1921, just under 9,000 tourists arrived at the islands. For the remainder of the decade, the number increased every year, as it did up to the months before the Second World War. Tourism in Hawaii didn’t really become a major industry until the advent of the jet age in the 1950s. But for those who could afford it, the islands were a popular destination in the 1920s, where they vacationed in luxury and in far less crowded conditions than most resorts in the United States. By 1927 the number of vacationers visiting Hawaii each year justified the opening of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki, an icon which earned the nickname, The Pink Palace of the Pacific. It contained over 400 rooms, each with private baths and balconies, and swathed its guests in luxury.

This is What Tourist Destinations were 100 Years Ago
New York’s Grand Central Station, eastern terminus for the 20th Century Limited. Wikimedia

19. The 20th Century Limited became a tourist destination of its own

The flagship train of the New York Central Railroad, in 1921 the 20th Century Limited drew riders from New York to Chicago who made the trip simply for the prestige of using the train. For just over $50 ($650 today), riders received a Pullman sleeping birth in a community car, separated by a curtain and attended by a porter. Private compartments cost considerably more. They also had access to a dining car, a smoking lounge car, and a club car, as well as their seat in a passenger coach. The train, which earned international renown for its service and ability to meet its schedule, became a symbol of prestige, and tourists often rode it simply to say that they had.

Competing railroads offered similar flagship trains. The Pennsylvania Railroad ran the Broadway Limited in direct competition with their New York Central rival. None caught the attention of the public as did the 20th Century Limited. It became the subject of songs, musical plays, and eventually films. It appeared as a plot device in books. The red carpet on which its passengers walked to board the train gave birth to the phrase “red carpet treatment” in the English lexicon. Arguably no other train in history earned such high regard among its riders than the 20th Century Limited. It earned its greatest profits during the 1920s, the Golden Age of American Railroading. In 1967 the train which connected La Salle Street station in Chicago to Grand Central Station in New York ran for the last time, an event unforeseeable in 1921.

This is What Tourist Destinations were 100 Years Ago
Grossinger’s became one of the most famous of all the Catskill resorts, known collectively as the Borscht Belt. Pinterest

20. The Catskills attracted thousands of visitors in the summer months

In 1921 resorts dotted the Catskills and Adirondacks of New York. They consisted of luxury hotels, bungalow camps, and catered boarding houses offering entertainment. Many discriminated against Jews, including openly refusing to admit Jews in their advertisements. The discrimination led to Jewish-owned resorts and hotels, many of which offered religious services as well as kosher foods, and attracted popular entertainers from the New York scene. The number of such establishments grew from the early years of the 20th century, with so many operated by descendants of Russian and other East European Jews the region became known as the Borscht Belt.

The bungalow camps offered entertainment in the form of games, community bingo, and other such pursuits, while the larger hotels and resorts provided stage shows a la vaudeville. The Borscht Belt became a cradle of early American standup comedy. Among its veterans were George Burns, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, and many others. In 1921 tourists arrived at their destinations by automobile or trains from New York and other points, and the Catskills welcomed visitors throughout the summer months. Few remained open during the winter. Following the holidays most remained closed until the spring thaw brought with it another season in the mountains.

This is What Tourist Destinations were 100 Years Ago
The Pikes Peak Highway led the region into becoming a popular tourist attraction in the 1920s. Pinterest

21. A gravel road allowed tourists to drive to the top of Pikes Peak

The first ascent by automobile up Colorado’s Pikes Peak took place in 1913. The driver, William Wayne Brown, used an old carriage road to make the climb, which took 5 hours and 28 minutes to complete. Two years later a wealthy American miner and entrepreneur named Spencer Penrose constructed the Pikes Peak Highway to the summit. Largely paved with gravel, it allowed intrepid motorists to drive to the summit for a fee. Motoring up Pikes Peak became a popular challenge to tourists, despite the difficulties encountered. A round trip up and down the mountain took several hours. The drive provided challenges to the cars and drivers. Multiple stops along the way were required to allow overheating engines and brakes to cool.

By 1921 the views afforded from the mountain’s summit and the bragging rights obtained by having driven to the top proved irresistible to thousands of motorists. Many found the descent more challenging than the climb. The limits of 1921 automobile technology taxed some cars severely. No gasoline or services were available along the nearly 20-mile route. Drivers had to rely on their own resourcefulness to successfully complete the trip. Ascending the mountain, as well as other summits across the United States, became a popular tourist activity, and remains one today. Penrose’s highway is still the motorist’s route up Pikes Peak in the 21st century, though maintained and operated by the City of Colorado Springs.

This is What Tourist Destinations were 100 Years Ago
Miami Beach became a major tourist destination in the early 1920s. Miami History

22. Miami Beach became a major tourist attraction in 1921

Miami Beach was incorporated as a city in 1915, already a destination for visitors from the North during the winter months. Several enterprising citizens of the region envisioned the city as a tourist resort in the early 20th century. James Allison and Carl Fisher, magnates who made a fortune in the automobile industry through the manufacture of sealed-beam headlights, envisioned a world-class aquarium in the city. First though, they addressed the scarcity of hotel rooms in the region through the construction of the Flamingo Hotel, expressly designed to cater to the rich. When construction costs exceeded the budget in the first decade of the 19th century, Allison withdrew from the project and turned his attention to his aquarium.

Allison drew advisors from diverse sources, including the Smithsonian Institution, the National Geographic Society, and the United States Commissioner of Fisheries. His aquarium catered to both tourists and marine wildlife professionals. The aquarium opened on New Year’s Day, 1921; the Flamingo Hotel opened to celebrate New Year’s Eve the night before. Both were immediate successes. Miami Beach quickly developed the reputation of being a playground for the wealthy, drawing residents for the winter months which included the famous and the infamous. In April 1921, state and federal agents raided the aquarium and found over 2,400 bottles of illicit liquor, delivered by boats which routinely arrived to deliver tropical fish and other specimens. Like most tourist meccas in 1921, the availability of imported booze added to the appeal of the destination.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Goggles and Side Curtains”. Gerald Carson, American Heritage Magazine. April, 1967. Online

“The Municipal Automobile Camp 1921-26”. Jan de Leeuw, Piedmont Neighborhood Association. September, 2017. Online

“The American Bartender invasion of 1920s Cuba”. Ian Cameron, Difford’s Guide. Online

“Bruce’s Beach – The Pretty Park with a Stormy Past”. Article, California Beaches. Online

“Sightseers to Niagara Falls in the 1920s”. Article, Niagara Falls Tourism. April 10, 2017. Online

“Last Days of the Nickel Empire”. Article, The Irish Times. June 20, 1998

“On the water”. Exhibition, Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Online

“Grand Canyon: The Continuing Story”. Connie Rudd. 1990

“Our history”. Article, The Chautauqua Institution. Online

“The Lost Canals of Venice of America”. Nathan Masters, KCET. April 5, 2013

“Ford and Edison’s Excellent Camping Adventures”. Christopher Klein, July 30, 2013

“Boss Nucky Johnson”. Article, The Atlantic City Experience. Online

“Series Attracting Many Visitors Here”. Article, The New York Times. October 4, 1921

“Time’s Square’s Inspiring History”. Drake Baer, Business Insider. January 2, 2016

“The Early History of Theme Parks in America”. Article, Arcadia Publishing. Online

“Hollywood”. Article, The Editors. August 21, 2018

“Mammoth Cave: Explore the World’s Longest Cave”. Article, US Department of the Interior. Online

“History in Hawaii: Tourism takes hold”. Article, Frommer’s. Online

“20th Century Limited”. Article, American Rails. Online

“What happened to the Borscht Belt?” Robert Gluck, The Jerusalem Post. May 19, 2012

“History and Geography of Pikes Peak”. Article, Colorado Encyclopedia. Online

“The Aquarium – An Early Miami Beach Tourist Attraction”. Article, Miami History. November 1, 2014