Written by: Maureen Devenny
Elephants and the beach go together like peanut butter and…soy sauce, right? You wouldn’t expect this combination, unless you’ve heard of Lucy the Elephant, the most famous resident of one New Jersey beach town.
How did this pachyderm find her seaside residence? To answer this mystery, flash back to the 1880s when a Philadelphia real estate developer named James Lafferty purchased a tract of land in South Atlantic City (known today as Margate). This land was located on the outskirts of Atlantic City, which at the time was enjoying a tourism boom that Lafferty hoped to take advantage of.
Lafferty had to find a way to encourage Atlantic City visitors to step further out of town, so he built a must-see attraction. The idea for Lucy was born! She was completed in 1881, and at 90 tons and six stories high, Lucy claimed her throne as the world’s largest elephant. The magnificent elephant drew crowds, who were then an audience for Lafferty’s real estate pitch. Lafferty had such success drawing crowds to South Atlantic City that he profited enormously and built elephants in two other beach towns: Coney Island, New York, and Cape May, New Jersey. Lafferty even got a patent for buildings shaped like other animals, but there is no evidence that he made plans to build any creatures other than elephants. Lucy is the only of Lafferty’s elephants to exist today; the other two were lost to fire and deterioration.
Lucy in her present state does not look much different than she did in this postcard dated 1906. Photo courtesy of the Margate Library.
There came a time when Lucy herself almost succumbed to fire. Lucy was leased as a summer house in 1902, and by 1904 was used as a tavern. One night, rowdy drinkers carelessly knocked over an oil lamp and caused a fire that almost consumed Lucy.
Aside from the fire, over the years Lucy’s wooden and metal skin sustained damage from occasional storms and accumulated corrosion from the salt air. By the 1960s, a downturn in fortunes in the Atlantic City area and a beating from Mother Nature found Lucy in a state of disrepair. In 1969, the Save Lucy Committee raised money to move her to a plot of land owned by Margate and repair the structure. Lucy reopened to the public in 1974, and was added to the list of National Historic Landmarks in 1976.
She has been open to the public ever since, who enter the structure through a spiral staircase in her back leg. Lucy the Elephant is open year-round. Visit her website to plan your visit!