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The Finish. America's Cup Race, off Sandy Hook, Sept 16th 1885 between the American Sloop Puritan and the English cutter Genesta.

The America’s Cup is considered the pinnacle of yacht racing. Every four years, teams compete for the oldest trophy in international sport in yachts that represent the cutting edge of yacht design and technology. This is a magnet for the world’s most talented sailors. – “The America’s Cup: Everything you need to know about the sailing competition.”

The America’s Cup started in 1851 predating the modern Olympic Games by 45 years. It is the oldest active trophy in international sport which was awarded to the winner of match races between two yachts. From the hills of Highlands, NJ one can overlook the late 1800s racecourse that the America’s Cup committee had selected along this coastline at Sandy Hook. There were three consecutive challenges, in 1885, 1886 and 1887. This is the only time in the history of the event the race has occurred three years in a row. The Sandy Hook site continued to be a popular site, entertaining crowds at the famous yacht race until 1920.

America’s Cup Race at Sandy Hook, N.J. - Harper’s Weekly, July 29, 1889

In the summer of 1895, media coverage of the America’s Cup race at Sandy Hook gave visitors a front-row seat in the shadow of Highland Beach resort over several days. Watching the trial yacht race between the Defender and the Vigilant (the 1893 winner), both representing the United States, brought people by trains, wagons, bicycles and riverboats. The hazy weather obscured the race most of the day until the very end, when the yachts came into sight. Even so, the New York World newspaper’s hot-air balloon entertained the spectators while they waited for the yachts to appear. The balloon was a sensation that ultimately fizzled. Onlookers had to give the balloon an assist to get it off the ground to rise at all. Two-thirds of the race was taken up with the aborted balloon launch when the fog lifted, and the onlookers rushed to see the end of the race. The crowd was made up almost entirely of summer visitors. The ultimate winner of the 1895 America’s Cup was the Defender (New York Yacht Club), which raced against Valkyrie III (Royal Yacht Squadron, United Kingdom), winning a best-of-five regatta.

New York World Newspaper, Highland Beach excursion resort, 1895.

Growth and success continued with such high points as the tenth challenge for the America’s Cup. The New York Times related on June 10, 1899:


The sky, which had been cloudy all day, had cleared toward sundown, and the Columbia went overboard with the stars feebly fighting to illuminate her amid a great glare of calcium lights. The launching was perfect in all its arrangements and was marred only by an accident caused by the wild eagerness of a photographer to get a flash-light picture.…This incident was unknown to the mass of spectators.…The north pier had been thrown open to the public, and every available space was occupied…the big white hull could be seen slowly descending. Applause and cheers at once rent the air. Mrs. Iselin dashed the bottle of champagne against the yacht’s bow, saying, “I christen thee Columbia.” As soon as the mast step was clear a staff was set up in it, carrying the private signals of J. Pierpont Morgan and C. Oliver Iselin, and when the bow appeared the New York Yacht Club flag was set up there. The yacht’s bow was draped with festoons of flowers running from the stern to hawse pipes.

The Shamrock and the Columbia, America’s Cup Race, 1899 at Sandy Hook. Courtesy of the

Cosgrove/Bahrs collection.

The grandeur of prestigious sloops in full sail could be seen by the crowd just below the tip of Sandy Hook on September 10, 1899. A day later, a storm, at times approaching hurricane velocity, caused considerable damage to several of the nearby towns. In Highlands, several houses were blown down and Sandlass’ Surf House hotel at Highland Beach Resort suffered a great deal of damage. Preparation for the coming race was delayed two weeks into October because of weather conditions.

The America’s Cup ewer. The America’s Cup, informally known as the Auld Mug, is a trophy awarded in the sport of sailing renamed in 1857 after the first winner, a schooner called America.

The 1899 America’s Cup was the 10th challenge for the Cup. A Scottish businessman, Sir Thomas Lipton, became the financial backer of the Royal Ulster Yacht Club’s challenge. Due to his past success in American waters, William Fife was chosen as the designer of the challenging yacht, the Shamrock. The yachts increased in size that year, and the defender, Columbia, was fitted with a telescopic steel mast. Charlie Barr was chosen as the Scottish/American citizen skipper of the Columbia. He skippered Fife’s designs in the past and had great confidence in his Scandinavian crew. The Columbia was entered by the New York Yacht Club, and Sir Thomas Lipton’s Shamrock represented the Royal Ulster Yacht Club. When the day arrived, small and large yachts filled coves in the Sandy Hook bay while the boating crowds jockeyed for position in the surrounding ocean at the starting point. All of the spectators who stood on the sands of Highland Beach were witnesses to history in the fall of 1899. The site overlooked the racecourse prepared for a best-of-five series. Accounts of the race reported that thousands of people lined the beaches between Sandy Hook and Long Branch to watch the yachts in action.

The plan to report the America’s Cup races by Guglielmo Marconi’s wireless transmission made exciting headlines. Stations were established at Sandy Hook and elsewhere along the course. The stations were laid out for transmitting messages recording the progress of the races to a point on the Irish coast in the neighborhood of Waterville. Preparations to make communication history appeared on the historic hills of Twin Lights near the north tower. The nearest crowds were electrified by the buzzing of the wireless spark gap transmitter. Reports from the Grande Duchesse, at sea among the competitors, were instantly wired to reporters at the New York Herald. Chris Brenner, in his documentary about Highland Beach, describes the event:

The America’s Cup event was a very popular sporting event in this period, but difficult to watch from shore. News coverage became critical, and all the big New York papers would send reporters out on ships to capture the action. In 1899, Guglielmo Marconi set up a Morse code transmission site at Twin Lights, and put another transmitter on a ship near the race course. As race results came in, the news was transmitted back to Marconi at Twin Lights, where it then was passed by wire line to New York. The New York Herald, which sponsored the experiment, received over 2,000 words of news and went to press instantly, scooping all the other New York papers by a day. This was the first commercial application of radio transmission, and it changed the world forever.

Guglielmo Marconi, Vanity Fair, 1905.

Marconi’s telegraph that was situated in the hills of Highlands drew in gamblers. This attraction was fueled by up-to-the-minute race positions telegraphed by Marconi from the Twin Lighthouses on Beacon Hill. Thomas Edison was quoted after learning of the success of Marconi’s first Transatlantic transmission at these Twin Lighthouses in the hills of Navesink: “I would like to meet that young man who had the monumental audacity to attempt and succeed in jumping an electrical wave across the Atlantic.”

The calm waters in the coves of the Shrewsbury River at the southern end of Sandy Hook protected the racing yachts at night. The American sloop, Columbia, slid into the water after being outfitted in Bristol, Rhode Island, to defend the 1899 America’s Cup. It had been anchored at Horseshoe Cove in the lower bay of Sandy Hook. Two dollars in your pocket bought you an early-morning ticket on the steamboat Albertina, carrying its passengers to the race of the century. Boats and steamers circled the racers while repeated cheers from onlookers encouraged the sailors waving their hats to the crowds while awaiting the signal. Thousands watched on the shore and viewed the scene from yachts anchored near the yard. The crowd of five thousand to six thousand cheering spectators at the starting point roared between the gun salutes and steam whistles in the harbor. The Albertina’s route shadowed the sloops along the racecourse throughout the match.

Historian, John King, noted in his book, Highlands, New Jersey: “Barr successfully helmed the Columbia to victory, and Lipton’s noted fair play provided unprecedented popular appeal to the sport and to his tea brand. An especially exciting race from the view point of the Irish Americans, or rather, a series of races, for the Cup was the challenge of Sir Thomas Lipton’s Shamrock I representing Northern Ireland in 1899, the year Marconi’s new wireless telegraph reported the minute by minute results. Lipton lost then, and again in 1901, 1903, 1920, and 1930, but good-naturedly, it was always said. The Highlands native, Edna McGuire Kruse, used to talk of Lipton stopping his boat at the Highlands and coming into the old McGuire house—after 1917, Bahrs Landing restaurant—or later on to the Kruse Pavilion for a quick glass of refreshment (not a tea!). She remembered him as a tall man, with a tanned face, steel gray hair, and a pleasure to talk to, a laugh-easy gentleman with a sly smile, honestly kind.”

The America’s Cup racecourse from Sandy Hook to Long Branch, July 27, 1920.

The New York Times reported on July 27, 1920: During the first hour after the start, both the defender and the challenger came so close to the New Jersey shore off Highland Beach that thousands of automobiles containing Summer residents and visitors were attracted to the scene and passed up and down the ocean. …It is estimated that 75,000 persons viewed the spectacle from vantage points on the Highlands as well as from the boardwalks and neighboring Summer resorts and residences on the beaches at Highlands, Navesink Beach, Normandie, Seabright, Monmouth Beach, Long Branch and Asbury Park.

All six of the America’s Cup races from 1893 through 1920 were held in the waters off Sandy Hook, easily within sight of most places in the Highlands and Highland Beach. They were the most exciting sporting events ever witnessed in American waters.

Highland Beach letterhead showing the Navesink Twin Lights atop Beacon Hill, c. 1888.

Library of Congress: Early film of 1899 America's Cup - Columbia Wins - Thomas Edison Co.

Learn more about Highlands and Highland Beach. Stories and artifacts 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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