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The Gala Day celebration at Highland Beach with Grand Illumination, Marine

Parade and a Hop in the Evening. Author’s collection.

The Highland Beach Improvement Company published its Oracle

subscription newsletter to keep the latest news in front of its most

ardent members and guests, who filled their social clubs, “Cottages” and

the Bathing Pavilion. A memorable affair took place on a balmy day on the

river side of Highland Beach when the signature event of the season, the

fourth Gala Day celebration, was held in August 1894. Guests found an

array of choices on their arrival: rowing races, regatta competitions, fishing

contests, auto-boat races, diving contests, boat parades and an evening

dance with “Grand Illuminations” (fireworks) to light up the night sky.

Local newspapers covered the event, noting with excitement the enormous

crowds of five thousand or more attending in one day. Dignitaries and

celebrities joined in the fun each successive year. They included visitors

from the New York Yacht Club; the ex-mayor of Cincinnati, William

Means; and the New Jersey governor, Robert Green. The Monmouth Press

on August 18, 1894, reported:

Fully 5,000 people crowded every inch of space. The bridge was a compact

mass of humanity. The steamboat wharf was jammed and the river bank

was black with people. While never before were so many craft of every

description crowded into so small a space on the river.…The enthusiasm

was simply intense. The clanging of the boathouse bell, the incessant

firing of cannon from many yachts, salutes of steam whistles from passing

excursion or pleasure boats and the vociferous cheering of the crowds as one

after another of the many contests were finished, made the scene one long to

be remembered.

Friendly rivalries existed between some of the boats in the races, creating

a lot of interest. The first prize for the best-decorated rowboat or canoe

went to Anna L. Fish, Ferdinand Fish’s daughter. Her canoe, The Lohengrin,

was named after a romantic opera by Richard Wagner inspired by the

epic Knight of the Swan legend. She held forth in grand style. The

boat was trimmed with laurel from bow to stern and featured a large

Chinese umbrella suspended above. Chinese lanterns and yellow material

completed the design. Anna Fish reclined against red and yellow cushions

and burned colored fire reflected in the lanterns. A four-foot swan adorned

the bow. From all accounts, the crowd was enchanted. For her effort, she

received a first-prize marine painting by James Buttersworth, a celebrated

artist of the day.

As anticipation grew at Gala Day, awards took center stage. Safety being

a key priority for Sandlass, the lifesaving medal for five years of service was

presented to Harry Meares. He had saved the lives of over one hundred

endangered swimmers, despite ropes being placed in the water for swimmers

to hold on to for safety. While they were sea bathing, waves would often

unexpectedly carry swimmers away. Even the shooting gallery offered prizes

earned during the summer season and were awarded on Gala Day. This

notable day showcased for the crowd a river filled with regatta yachts. One

yacht in particular, Linda, commanded attention on the water. By all reports,

it was the grandest of private yachts.

Highland Beach Pier, Shrewsbury River, c. 1890s. Courtesy of Sandlass Family.

Excitement grew when a bicycle race was contested after protests erupted.

One cyclist was thought to be a professional. On further investigation, he

was confirmed as a prizewinning amateur. The race was one mile in length

from flagpole to Normandie and could be completed in twelve minutes.

Back on the river, the four-oared crew race ended in a dead heat in the time

of one minute, seven seconds. A few of the prizes included a scallop shell

in gold with the figure of a diver in silver and a jeweled medal given for

swimming. At the end of the day, Will Sandlass gave a “hop” at the Surf

House. Ragtime and Tin Pan Alley music had gained in popularity from

the 1880s and reached its height in 1899. One of the most popular groups

of musicians in New York City, Earl Fuller’s Famous Jazz Band, traveled to

the shore from Rector’s highly fashionable restaurant on Broadway, a place

where diners went to “see and be seen.” On the special nights at Sandlass

Pavilion, Fuller’s jazz band played to the crowds during the craze of the

turkey trot, fish walk and bunny hug. The crowds grew to fifteen thousand as

the Gala Day event gained in popularity.

Despite all the fun at Gala Day, the effect of the earlier economic panic

was not the only thing to worry about at Highland Beach. In his Destinations

Past: Highland Beach documentary, Chris Brenner says: “The morals of the

era leaned toward civility and religious respect, and public sentiment started

to question games of chance and alcohol consumption as corruptive forces

in society, and local laws were passed prohibiting some of the games and

attractions from operation on Sundays which was one of the biggest days

of the week. One account has the local constable demanding Sandlass shut

down the carousel on Sundays.”

The ornately carved animals with flying manes held memories of magical

childhood moments perched atop a fiery steed while whirling to the music

of the carousel. The resort business surmounted this latest barrier and

continued to be a favorite destination for excursionists visiting the shore. The

Red Bank Daily Register in 1895 picked up the news about blue laws (preventing

entertainment or leisure activities on Sundays) being enforced in New York

City. A great exodus to Coney Island and other resorts meant a benefit for

Highland Beach, which got its full share of the exodus. The Monmouth Press

reported in 1895: “Since the enforcement of the Sunday laws in New York,

Highland Beach has become a great Sunday resort. Crowds visited the sandy

stretch last Sunday. It is said Red Bankers spend more money at Highland

Beach than people from the cities.”

Sandlass Pavilion at Highland Beach immediately benefited from the

new rail connection originating at the Atlantic Highlands pier. Since the

railroad crossed the river, summer visitors encountered this new seaside

resort on the rail journey from local towns heading toward the coastline.

Lazy days among the houseboats, tents and bungalows afforded a perfect

rendezvous for anyone wishing to get away from the heat and hectic pace.

Power yachts and canoes cruised the shores by the scrub marshes filled

with nature’s wildlife, providing ample room to make this one of the most

popular resorts of its day.

The Highland Beach Oracle newsletter gave subscribers a peek into resort life in February 1896.

Courtesy of John King’s collection.

Highlands had acquired a new train station. Even so, there was something

missing. It had hotels, steamboat docks (with the Merchant and Patten lines

making several stops a day), boarding houses, bars and the famous Twin

Lights attraction, but no ocean bathing and no boardwalk. Even though

Highland Beach had one hotel, it, too, lacked something. The large number

of hotels, boarding house accommodations and bars were across the bridge

in Highlands. A symbiotic relationship developed between the town of

Highlands and Highland Beach. William Sandlass’s Highland Beach

excursion resort was decidedly one of the several elements that influenced

the successful development of Highlands as a major tourist destination,

mentioned by John King in his book Highlands, New Jersey.

Tents continued to rise in even greater numbers. Vacationers in search

of affordable housing continued to look for respite from the dog days of

summer. Many encampments reflecting the popularity of Highlands and

Highland Beach proliferated along the riverbanks and sandy shores of the

nearby coves on the peninsula.

In 1895, Fish leased property opposite the railroad station at the Highlands

of Navesink. Within a year, there was difficulty in getting permission to

bring water to the hillside community at Water Witch. The group forged

ahead with a campaign offering a house design competition in the Highland

Beach Oracle newsletter to foster enthusiasm for the project. A clubhouse

and cottages were part of the enterprise, similar to the aristocratic Twilight

Park in the Catskill Mountains. Fish experienced financial challenges and

partnership disagreements during the Water Witch Park venture. This

eventually led him to withdraw from the endeavor, leaving his partners to

complete the development of the project. The Monmouth Hills community

and its clubhouse, the Water Witch Casino near the Twin lighthouses in the

Highlands of Navesink, evolved into a historically important community.

Fish’s financial fortunes declined over the next few years, leading him to give

up his influence on the future of Highland Beach. He was considered one

of the driving forces at the outset of the nineteenth-century communities

on the northernmost point of the Jersey Shore, including Highland Beach,

Navesink Beach, Monmouth Hills and Water Witch Casino (historic site), as

well as Hilton (Atlantic Highlands).

In the greater context, the magnitude of the Highland Beach resort’s

popularity continued to have an enormous impact on the southern end of

the Sandy Hook peninsula and neighboring resort towns. The reach of the

resort touched the towns of Highlands, Sea Bright, Rumson, Monmouth

Beach, and Long Branch over the history of its presence on the peninsula.

This seashore location slept from October to May and awoke again each

summer. The 1895 Standard Union newspaper of Brooklyn reminds us: “The

air of stillness awakened each summer when cottage life was filled with

guests that arrived from New York. Trunks and traps moved oceanward on

the rail cars owned by The Central Railroad of New Jersey. Sandy Hook

boats from Pier 8, North River, did a very large business offering a pleasant

trip to the seashore. Visitors found that the fisherman’s colony of Sea Bright

attracted the curiosity of many strangers in town.

New Jersey Fishing Village. The Nauvoo Section of The Fishing Village in Sea Bright New Jersey, Engraving American 1888.

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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