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An Illustrated History of Travel & Transportation at Highlands and Highland Beach, New Jersey

Jean Howson, the RBA Group, Inc., created a pictorial history in 2010 during the bridge building project between Highlands and Sandy Hook, New Jersey. The New Jersey Department of Transportation commissioned the history panels and report in support of our cultural resources in Monmouth County.

These panels describe “…the development of the travel and transportation infrastructure in Highlands and the now-vanished Highland Beach resort (built in the 1880s on the barrier beach). A geographic focus draws attention to the relationship between mainland, river, barrier beach, and sea, in describing the development of the roadways, waterways, and railways that converged in this location and the concomitant growth of a hotel and seaside amusement industry.” -Jean Howson, Historian

An Illustrated History, Panel by Jean Howson, 2010

The 2017 NJ Garden State Film Festival’s Award-Winning Documentary by Chris Brenner, Destinations Past: Highland Beach, featured the transportation dilemmas faced by Highlands, Highland Beach and the surrounding area:

By 1932, public works were underway in grand scale. The automobile traffic was intense, and so the State of New Jersey built a new “Million Dollar Bridge” across the Highlands narrows. The walking bridge was torn down, but the rail bridge remained in place. The new car bridge featured a split lift opening and a higher roadway to accommodate marine traffic.

Construction of the new bridge caused dramatic changes to Highland Beach, however. The Surf House Hotel and Basket Pavilion had to be torn down to make room for the landing ramp of the bridge. The new bridge also pointed cars toward Sea Bright, adding a slight turning obstacle for visitors arriving from the West. -Brenner, Destinations Past

An Illustrated History, Panel by Jean Howson, 2010

Sandy Hook’s history of excursion resort development started in 1888 at the dawn of leisure time following the Industrial revolution. The birth of the Jersey Shore at its northernmost point on the peninsula hosted an explosion of visitors to the new resort. Steamboats, trains and automobiles brought burgeoning crowds to the tip of Sandy Hook on its southern shores. The growth continued in the local towns surrounding the resort as the decades progressed. Eventually, a series of events affecting the nation during World Wars, Prohibition, and the Great Depression brought changes.

Undoubtedly, the Great Depression had a serious effect on commerce in the town of Highlands and at Highland Beach Resort, as it did on so many businesses at the time. Despite the Depression, new forms of cultural expression flourished and both commercial and New Deal programs were funded, affecting the shore. One of those programs funded by the State of New Jersey came to the Highlands area. In spite of scarce money, the state planned a new bridge between Highlands and Highland Beach. The low bridge caused a problem for boats passing underneath it, resulting in impossible traffic-delays. The nearby highway had been recently paved, resulting in an extraordinary increase in automobiles. This forced a decision. Today we can see the results of the transportation changes over the years in the variety of bridges designed to carry visitors over the Shrewsbury River to the beaches.

An Illustrated History, Panel by Jean Howson, 2010

An Illustrated History, Panel by Jean Howson, 2010

An Illustrated History, Panel by Jean Howson, 2010

An Illustrated History, Panel by Jean Howson, 2010

An Illustrated History, Panel by Jean Howson, 2010

Another outcome of the depression and the looming prospect of World War II put many beach development projects on hold and affected revenue up and down the shore. The result was a decrease in visitors and revenue. The idea of a national park at Sandy Hook had been discussed during this period. A reporter from the Daily Record in Long Branch interviewed Sandlass in the early 1930s and he gave his opinion of the plans for a national park:

I met William Sandlass of Highland Beach, yesterday and he was bubbling over with smiles. “If you had asked me a month ago what kind of season was in sight,” said he, “I would have replied: Things do not look so good,” but now it’s different. I have had the best bathing business for June in the past 15 years. Crowds were never so large and last Sunday broke all records. Mr. Sandlass is a unique character at Highland Beach. Not everybody knows the latter is a part of the borough of Sea Bright, the extreme northern end, but it is and William Sandlass monarch of all he surveys. If the residents there had the selection of a man for mayor, Sandlass would win in a walk. He has served in the Sea Bright Town council and is well versed in municipal affairs. “Sandlass Beach” is a mighty interesting place, and no one would be happier than ‘William Sandlass if Sandy Hook was chosen as a national park in 1932.

A petition was presented to the U.S. Congress to create a National Park at Highlands and the oceanfront. Following a review, the lands were considered too small. The plan was defeated and the idea abandoned. Relief came to the operation of Highland Beach and the town of Highlands when Prohibition ended in 1933 and the Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution was passed and ratified. During the 1930s, the resort name was changed to “Sandlass Baths,” and the amenities and amusements began a transition in response to the popular culture of the new generation. At the core of this trend was the popularity of jazz music and movies from Hollywood. The devastating effects of the Depression brought a new American experience. Life continued at the beach, with family members building memories that would be told years later.

Crowds still came every summer when families spent time relaxing together. Once they arrived, there would be a crush of people paying admission and getting a key to a locker or a bathhouse. When the former glory of the Bamboo Garden had faded, the four-towered original carousel building with the large dome was converted to the men’s locker room annex. Will Sandlass purchased a truckload of wooden lockers from a New York City hotel that were slated for demolition. They were installed around the walls of the emptied-out Bamboo Garden/carousel building with one exception: still standing in the center, reaching up to the heights of the central dome, was the original preserved coconut palm tree that Will Sandlass purchased and had shipped from Cuba along with the trainload of bamboo in 1908. The modernization of the resort now served more families who filled the local communities brought about by industrious real estate developers. The excursion resort days triggered by changes in transportation and cultural shifts, transformed from a day tripper destination in the 1930s to a local club environment by the late 1950s. All of these changes had taken a toll on the aging Will Sandlass and he passed away in November 1938. His wife Helen and son Henry continued running the business until 1961 when eminent domain acquired the Sandlass property for a NJ State Park at Sandy Hook.

In the Illustrated History of Travel & Transportation at Highlands and Highland Beach, New Jersey by Jean Howson, she quotes historian John King:

The ascendance of the automobile was soon complete. By the end of the 1940s the New York steamboats no longer docked at Atlantic Highlands and trains stopped running to Highlands. Trolleys had been gone since 1923. For a brief time NJ Route 36 was the main driving route out to the shore, and its users supported the tourist industry in Highlands and Highland Beach. But it was highway construction, ironically, that brought on the decline of tourism in the area in the second half of the 20th century, when the Garden State Parkway bypassed the bay shore. Beginning in the 1960s, travelers simply drove to shore points further south (King 2001:143).

An Illustrated History, Panel by Jean Howson, 2010

“In the heat of New York summers, throngs of workers and young families sought escape from the sweltering temperatures, not to mention the stench from thousands of horses and poor sanitary systems in New York. A day by the sea, with fresh air, cool breezes, swimming and picnics provided welcome relief, and Highland Beach was open for business!” – Brenner, Destinations Past

Leaving New York City and North Jersey on the journey southward towards Sandy Hook peninsula, the steam engines carried masses of visitors along the shoreline. Throngs of beachgoers, looking for entertainment on the southernmost tip, near the government outpost and military fortifications at Ft. Hancock, discovered a halcyon haven for sailors and sojourners. The coves and marshes gave quiet sanctuary to the many pleasure boats anchoring in the small inlets along the beaches reaching out to the sea. The word spread quickly through a barrage of advertising in the New York City and local newspapers. Among the verdant green scenery, seashore marshes and the beauty of the rose cactus on warm summer days, cottages sprung up atop the lush forested hills of Highlands and doted the seashore on the peninsula.

Theatre stars built elegant summer “Cottages” in this seaside haven within an hour’s time by steamboat or train from the city of Manhattan. Within the actor’s colony a few of the shining stars represented such prominent names as, Thomas Wallace Keene, John and Nellie McHenry Webster, John and Carol Wheelock, Horace McVicker, W.A. Hayden and J.D. Hoffman, all performing artists. Neil Burgess, one who shone the brightest, conceived a grand cottage featuring a castle turret within a short distance across the walking bridge from Highland Beach.

By 1906, a new form of entertainment was sweeping the nation: the movies! Attracted by the popularity and excitement of the area, movie companies soon discovered this scenic location. This undeveloped rural area had much to offer in re-creating the feel of a desolate tropical island on the sands of Highland Beach. D.W. Griffith, the famous motion picture director, brought the Biograph Company and actors to Highlands and nearby ocean beaches to shoot four films between 1908 and 1910. Around the turn of the 20th century, another famous actor lived by the sylvan hillsides of Highlands. By 1910, Wallace “Wally” Reid, had left for Hollywood as a silent screen star in such notable movies as the first “Picture of Dorian Gray” (1913) and the classic “The Birth of a Nation (1915). Initially, the first Highlands moving picture venues were not theaters at all. Stores and open lots were quickly set up to project the movies for folks in town reacting to the fad. Will Sandlass opened the “Airdrome Theatre” – an open-air movie venue converted from an outdoor deck on the river side of the resort.

“Visitors could watch the filming from the boardwalk, adding yet another draw, and making Highland Beach famous in movie houses across the country.” – Chris Brenner, Destinations Past

An Illustrated History, Panel by Jean Howson, 2010

The new, fixed bridge carrying NJ Route 36 over the Shrewsbury River is just the latest chapter in the story of travel and transportation infrastructure at Highlands. From Native American trails to succeeding ages of sail, steam, and automobiles, this story mirrored that of American transportation as a whole.

The 1932 bridge for cars had handled traffic to the Sandlass beach club at Highland Beach, which continued to operate successfully following the demise of mass transportation to the area; to the military installations at Fort Hancock at the north end of Sandy Hook; and to Sea Bright and points south along Route 36. But the final decades of the 20th century saw Sandy Hook reborn as an enormously popular, public park. In 1962 New Jersey took over Sandlass’s as a State Park, and a decade later both the State Park and Fort Hancock became part of the National Park Service’s Gateway National Recreation Area.

…As this study has shown, transportation infrastructure played a significant role in the history of Highlands and the nearby barrier beach, and will continue to shape the area’s future.” – Jean Howson, An Illustrated History

Learn more about Highlands and Highland Beach. Stories and relics of a bygone era await you in Gallery 1 at the Twin Lights Museum. Read the recent book, Sandy Hook’s LOST Highland Beach Resort, found in the museum store recounting a fanciful era in a town glittering with stars from Broadway and the early years of silent film.





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