Born New York City on December 25, 1857, Louis Kuehnle (pronounced “coon-lee”) was the son of Louis and Katrina Kuehnle. A year after his birth, the Kuehnle family moved to Egg Harbor City, New Jersey to enter the hotel business. In 1875 the family moved to Atlantic City to open a hotel in the blossoming resort.
After the death of Louis Sr., Louis took over his father’s hotel, The Kuehnle Hotel at South Carolina and Atlantic Avenues. The hotel housed a saloon known as “The Corner,” and it became the meeting place of the local politicians. Prostitution, gambling and liquor were abundant at the hotel.
“Louie” grew in popularity and power and took over de facto political control of the city, inspiring other young politicians such as Harry and Isaac Bacharach and Enoch Johnson. He is credited to be the first leader to build a bi-partisan political machine in Atlantic City, and he controlled the city from the late 1800’s until his downfall in 1911. Those who complained about his czar-like rule were told, “They’ll build a monument to me someday; I built this town”. Kuehnle’s dream was to transform Atlantic City into a major city and he was responsible for numerous improvements to the city. He organized his own telephone company because he thought the rates were too high, and a gas company, which resulted in prices going down. He also contributed to the lowering of electric prices by backing a competing utility. He dictated the terms of many official city contracts, had a hand in building the Boardwalk, drilled an artesian well to show it could be done and started the city waterworks. He joined the Atlantic City Yacht Club and served as chairman. He earned the unofficial rank of “Commodore,” a name that stayed with him until his death.
New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson in his 1910 campaign vowed to clean up Atlantic City, including election fraud and Kuehnle’s questionable business and personal interests. Kuehnle was convicted of corruption and voter fraud in 1913 and sentenced to a year of hard labor and a $1,000 fine. After serving a six-month sentence he went to Bermuda for vacation and an extended visit to Germany.
When he returned to Atlantic City, Enoch “Nucky” Johnson was the de-facto boss of the city, but Johnson agreed to support Kuehnle for City Commissioner. He was elected in 1920 and reelected each time his four year term ended until his death in 1934. He served as Commissioner of Parks and Public Property. The Commodore was never married. He died August 6, 1934 following an operation on his appendix. City Hall paid its respect by draping his chair in the Commission Chamber and City Hall itself in black. Firehouse flags hung at half mast. Currently, a street named Kuehnle Avenue in is the only visible monument to Kuehnle in Atlantic City.
Resources in the Atlantic City Free Public Library Atlantic City Heritage Collections:
Nelson Johnson. Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City. Plexus Publishing: Medford, NJ, 2002
Martin Paulsson. The Social Anxieties of Progressive Reform: Atlantic City, 1854-1920. New York University Press: New York, 1994.
Who's Who in New Jersey, Atlantic County Edition. National Biographic News Service: New York, 1925.
Local History Biography File - "Louis Kuehnle"