GALA DAYS RULE!
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
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.