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On November 25, 1923, Bill McCoy, possibly the most celebrated bootlegger of the Prohibition era, found his career as a smuggler at an end at the hands of the U.S. Coast Guard, off Sandy Hook.

The Roaring Twenties exemplified a period of significant changes worldwide in both social and cultural trends and innovations. The nation’s hotly debated issue of alcohol prohibition grew into a grassroots movement. The Volstead Act set the starting date of nationwide prohibition for January 17, 1920. It set down the rules for the federal ban and the types of alcohol permitted for consumption. Highlands and Highland Beach felt the weight of this new law enacted to control beer and liquor supplies in many cities, including New York. Alcohol could still be used in medicinal prescriptions, church services and personal use at home. Throughout the summer, excursion parties continued to flock to Highland Beach, where the combined Bamboo Garden and Airdrome theater had live music and movies. The highly publicized cinema shows delighted visitors, while the media focused on celebrity guests in Highlands and the area surrounding the Highland Beach Resort. A regular billing, the musical bands from Rector’s Restaurant in New York City still attracted fans.

Shrewsbury River, Highlands, N.J. Courtesy of photo collection, Bob Johnson

As owner of the resort, two months after Prohibition’s Volstead Act went into effect, Will Sandlass found himself in the center of rum-running activity. Off the coast near Highlands was an area known as Rum Row. Muriel Smith of the Atlantic Highlands Herald wrote an article on January 3, 2018, about the rum running era. This excerpt notes the effect it had on the small town of Highlands:

While the Act, which banned intoxicating liquors to everyone in America, was later recognized as a 14-year social experiment it ended with the passage of the 21st amendment, which made it legal to drink again. But along the Shrewsbury River, the Bayshore waterway that opened out to the Atlantic Ocean, the seafaring men who made their daily living fishing, clamming, lobstering and boat building, became the bootlegger, rum runners and smugglers who catered to the needs of a thirsty nation by night. The age of the rum runner was a lively time for Highlands…all these folks were dealing outside the law, so in addition to keeping out of reach of law enforcement, they also faced dangers and death from others dealing in their same trade. These were the hijackers, those who made their living by stealing from the bootleggers.

Rum Runner, Proal Craft

An anonymous rumrunner shared his adventures, “Confessions of a Rumrunner,” in the book Stories from Highlands, New Jersey: A Sea of Memories by John King. The rumrunner told the story of five or six boats that formed combinations and worked as an “outfit”, landing loads of liquor right through the surf in rowboats at Sea Bright. When the returning boats rounded the Hook, other boats that had been hiding out in the darkness and without any liquor would speed out as decoys for the U.S. Coast Guard patrol boats and trick them to follow as far as Staten Island. Meanwhile, the boats with liquor headed to their landing places and unloaded their cases.

During the years when alcohol was not allowed, the Bamboo Bar sign at the resort came down and was replaced with “The Café” signage to signal a change. Located next to the seawall and boardwalk, this spot was frequented by thirsty beachgoers to refresh themselves with orangeade and lemonade. The lines were long when Will’s brother Johnson held court at the new refreshment stand. Johnson presented large “jugs” of lemonade on the countertop, where he created special recipes to flavor the drinks. In King’s Stories from Highlands, New Jersey, Ann McNeil in 1989 recounted; “Prohibition made so many changes in our peaceful little town…often I woke in the night to the sound of gunfire and wondered what neighbor’s son would not be coming home next day. One such case was a young man…he left a wife and child.”

Rum Runners

Bill McCoy is credited with conceiving the “Rum Row” method of smuggling. McCoy organized with larger ships to stay beyond the three-mile U.S. territorial limit. Locals would travel out on high-powered boats to meet these larger ships. Their boats were designed to outrun Coast Guard cutters and they were able to take advantage of the hidden inlets and waterways along the coast. This idea caught on immediately, and in time a line of ships could be viewed from the beaches of the Jersey Shore, from Sandy Hook to Atlantic City. Eventually, Rum Row became a fully-fledged regatta: Up to 100 boats at a time sat offshore, with jazz bands and tourists coming out, and Bill McCoy was the undisputed king. (Barrow’s, “End of the line for Bill McCoy, King of the Rum-Runners.”)

Roaring 20’s

Despite Prohibition and changes in transportation, Highland Beach continued to evolve. Even though the highest rate of train passengers were recorded in 1920, cars would be preferred over the next thirty years. In his documentary, Chris Brenner recounts; “By the late 20’s the transportation load had inverted, with more visitors arriving by car instead of train and boat. The traffic caused large backups in the area, and parking was a daily problem…The explosion of automobiles and roads forced some of the local trolley lines to shut down as more emphasis was put on roads and bridges to accommodate all the cars. Sandlass upped the level of décor and services, adding a spa and hairdresser, as well as other visual improvements.”

Highland Beach Resort, 1920s Bamboo Bar converts to a CAFÉ!

As the summer of 1920 turned into the month of July, the thirteenth America’s Cup Challenge held viewers enthralled. This contest was the last one in which the yachts competed in the New York Harbor and Sandy Hook Bay. The Shamrock IV of the Royal Ulster Yacht Club vied for the cup against Resolute of the New York Yacht Club in the best-of-five contest. It was reported that a huge throng of close to seventy-five thousand people on the beaches along the seacoast from Highlands to Asbury Park witnessed the event on July 26, 1920. Carrying American flags, the fans vigorously waved at the yachts. In the first hour the contenders came so close to shore near Highland Beach that thousands of automobiles and visitors were attracted to the event along the coast. The winner was Resolute!

Each season, unexpected threats to the resort occurred as the months grew closer to the opening of the Bathing Pavilion on Decoration Day (Memorial Day). Fires and storms were still ever-present dangers at the shore, taking a toll on lives and finances. At the north end of the property, the summer bungalows had become more permanent. At its peak, there were twenty-five tenant homes on “Dock Street,” the main artery running down the center of the Bungalow Colony. Houseboats were often allowed to moor near the summer cottages. The business was humming along until the stock market crashed in 1929 and the Great Depression set in.

Highland Beach Resort, Sandy Hook, N.J., c. 1930

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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