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The Highlands of Navesink built its own identity. The availability of private clubs drew tourists in from New York City. Guests enjoyed the exclusivity of an environment that ensured visitors’ comfort and convenience. As word spread of this new accommodation, it increased the desire to visit the Highlands of Navesink and its environs. The 1847 Neptune Club was the first club built in Highlands near the water’s edge on the Shrewsbury River. It was exclusive to yachting members and friends. The club provided its visitors with comfortable arrangements, including overnight rooms, a chef to prepare meals, and a room for parlor games. The sheltered dock was designed for members and their guests who were boating-enthusiasts entering the club environment. This protective awning in gazebo-style greeted guests as they stepped out of their boats, rain or shine, on warm summer days.

Neptune Club, Highlands, N.J., c. 1840s

Highlands’ growing popularity was honored by a song dedicated to the Neptune Club with music written by the well-known composer of Welsh descent John Rogers Thomas. “Beautiful Highlands” was one of more than one hundred popular American songs composed by Thomas. His song echoed the nineteenth-century post-Romantic era surrounding the times:

Beautiful, Beautiful Highlands! Above the rolling sea,

To breathe the pure refreshing air, Gives joy and health to me!...

Beautiful, Beautiful Highlands! Upon the moonlit night,

I look from out thy leafy side, To watch the Highland light!

Fondly its beacon is shining, Like some fair rose in bloom;

To guide the sailor safely on, Amid the rising gloom!

Neptune Club, Highlands, N.J., c. 1840s

Clubs were an important drawing card for visitors to Highlands who wanted an escape to be with friends of the same class. Within three years, the Jackson Club opened in 1866. After summering in hotels, the members initially purchased property from Peter F. Schenck just north of the present bridge and a few years later built its clubhouse on Shrewsbury Avenue. The Jackson Club eventually opened to the public in 1868 and remained until it was destroyed by fire in the twentieth century.

Neptune Club, Highlands, N.J., modernized for the time period.

Highlands was situated as a spot for fishing and drew tourists in with its proximity to the beach. These hotels by the water’s edge drew large numbers of families and groups to experience a day, a week or a summer. The luxurious hotels offered a nightlife with music, theatrical entertainment, and dancing. The famous shore dinners with seafood as the main attraction grew in popularity. Proximity to steamboat and rail lines offered the perfect escape. Local resort towns nearby were easy to access by local transport. Thompson’s Atlantic Pavilion, the Swift House and the Lewis House accommodated the influx of guests in ever-increasing numbers.

Between 1865 and 1871, a Highlands ferry was the only transportation available for visitors who wanted to go across to the nearby peninsula. It would take another year before the Navesink Bridge Company completed the first bridge connecting Highlands to Sandy Hook in 1872. Following a collision by a sloop, the bridge was deemed unsafe, and closed for three years. The Navesink Bridge Company repaired and reopened the bridge in 1878 and renamed it the “walking bridge,” as it was also used for pedestrians and horses. The bridge’s romantic charm added to the experience of visiting the natural setting surrounding the river.

Between 1900 and 1906, Will Sandlass expanded his business interests at the shore and invested further in the Highland Beach Resort on Sandy Hook. The year 1908 was a great one of transformation. The former Merry- Go-Round building underwent a metamorphosis, revealing the new Bamboo Garden. This place was a principal attraction of the resort, where patrons danced into the night listening to strains of violin, flute, and piano music. Inside the Bamboo Garden, Japanese parasols adorned the space. In other areas around the resort, electric wiring was updated and the buildings were overhauled for basket parties and bathing-suit rentals. Renovations were completed in the Photographic Gallery, improvements were made to the beach platform and a new walk was laid down from the Bamboo Garden to the old pier of the Patten Line near the government reservation.

Melrah Social Club, Highland Beach Resort

A year earlier, additional boathouse landings were in operation at Highland Beach in 1907. The two steamboat piers awaited passengers on the Shrewsbury River during the summer season. One pier was strategically placed in a diagonal manner near the walking bridge deep into the river. The second pier operated at the end of the expanding Bungalow Colony on Dock Street where the Mel-Rah Club (former stable) existed close to the entrance of Fort Hancock. Both small and larger steamboats had a place to come. Deeper water was required for larger boats and the sandbar on Dock Street afforded enough depth for the necessary docking of a 175-foot-long vessel. This dock placement allowed for the steamboat to be far enough away from the bridge to make the run across the river to Highlands safely at the Schenck’s ferry landing and other docks nearby.

Two social clubs appeared at Highland Beach during the same summer season. The Dar-He Club was converted from a building owned by the Highland Beach Improvement Company. Next door, the second club named the Surf Club opened within the Surf House Hotel. John King noted in his book Highlands, New Jersey: “The whole resort complex was in Ocean Township, that is, until the Borough of Sea Bright annexed it on March 31, 1909. Soon its owner, Will Sandlass, bringing with him over a quarter of a million dollars in ratables, won election as a town council member of the borough.” Will’s future service as a council member increased his association with leaders in the community. Highland Beach became a center for political dinners hosted at the Surf House hotel.

Will was ready for the big crowds after his improvements over the winter. The parlor of the Surf House hotel, refitted with bamboo, was the place where ten-cent quatrefoil coins could be purchased for admission to dance at the Bamboo Garden. The rustic Bamboo Garden was designed for 2,500 people. It was enlarged and covered with a large pergola surrounding it. The ballroom and its large dance floor had a tropical atmosphere. It was adjoined by an open-air pavilion decorated with palms and coconut leaves. The pavilion was capable of seating one thousand people for serving light meals and other refreshments with a view of the river. The big attraction in the Bamboo Garden was located overhead in a preserved coconut palm that soared toward the dome. George M. Foster of Highlands, who supervised the building of the Bamboo Garden, carefully replaced the preserved palm ferns on the tree. Stuffed monkeys and birds were set about the garden. Will’s alligator, brought from Florida and mounted in New York, was residing high within the tree. Business was booming, and land values in Highlands had more than doubled over a few years.

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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