Blackpool rose to prominence as a major centre for tourism during the 19th century, particularly for the inhabitants of northern mill towns. By the middle of the 18th century, the practice of sea bathing to cure diseases was beginning to become fashionable among the wealthier classes, and visitors began making the arduous trek to Blackpool for that purpose. In 1781 Thomas Clifton and Sir Henry Houghton built a private road to Blackpool, and a regular stagecoach service from Manchester and Halifax was established. A few amenities, including four hotels, an archery stall and bowling greens, were developed, and the town grew slowly. The growth was accelerated by the actions of Henry Banks, often considered to be the 'Father of Blackpool'. In 1819 he purchased the Lane Ends estate, including the Lane Ends Hotel and built the first holiday cottages.
In 1846 a branch line to Blackpool from Poulton was completed. The railways had arrived, bringing with them a sudden influx of visitors, providing the motivation for entrepreneurs to build accommodation and create new attractions, leading to more visitors and a rapid cycle of growth throughout the 1850s and 1860s. Gas lighting was introduced in 1852, and piped water in 1864. The growth was intensified by the practice of Lancashire cotton mill owners to close the factories for a week every year to service and repair machinery. These became known as Wakes Weeks. Each towns mill's would close for a different week, allowing Blackpool to manage a steady and reliable stream of visitors over a prolonged period of the summer.
In 1863 the North Pier was completed, rapidly becoming a centre of attraction for elite visitors. Central Pier was completed in 1868, with a theatre and a large dance floor. The town expanded southwards, and the South Pier was completed in 1893, making Blackpool the only town in the United Kingdom with three piers. In 1878 the Winter Gardens complex opened, incorporating ten years later the Opera House, said to be the largest in Britain outside of London.
Much of Blackpool's growth and character from the 1870s on was predicated on the town's pioneering use of electrical power. In 1879, it became the first municipality in the world to have electric street lighting, as large parts of its promenade was wired. Eventually leading to the present-day Blackpool Illuminations. One of the worlds first tramways was laid down on the promenade in 1885, over the next five years the tramway was to be extended both southwards and northwards.
1894 saw the opening of two of the town's most prominent buildings; the Grand Theatre on Church Street and Blackpool Tower on the Promenade. The first decade of the new century saw the development of the Promenade as we know it today. The pleasure beach was first established about this time. Seasonal static illuminations were first set up in 1912, but had only two seasons before being closed due to World War I, before being reintroduced in 1925. The illuminations extend the holiday season into September and early October.
The inter-war years saw Blackpool attain pre-eminence as a holiday destination. By 1930 Blackpool claimed around seven million visitors per year. Stanley Park was laid out in 1926. In the decade afterwards, it continued to attract more visitors, reaching a zenith of 17 million per year. However, several factors combined to make the growth untenable. The decline of the textile industry led to a de-emphasis of the traditional week long break. The rise of package holidays sent many of Blackpool's traditional visitors abroad, where the weather was more reliably warm and dry.
Blackpool is heavily dependant on tourism. In what is often regarded as its heyday (1900-1950), Blackpool thrived as the factory workers of northern England took their annual holidays there en masse. Any photograph from that era shows crowds of tourists on the beach and promenade. Blackpool was also the preferred destination of visitors from Glasgow and remains so to this day. Today Blackpool remains the most popular seaside resort in the UK, and reputedly still has more B&B beds than the whole of Portugal. However, the town has suffered a serious drop in numbers of visitors which has fallen from 17 million in 1992 to 10 million today.
Outside the main holiday season, Blackpool's Winter Gardens routinely hosts major political and trade union conferences. Blackpool illuminations consisting of a series of lighted displays and collages arranged along the entire length of the sea front, seven miles in total, attract many visitors from late August to early November, a time when most seaside resorts' holiday season have already ended.