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Independent Motion Picture Company star Mary Pickford in 1916.

Leaving New York City on the journey southward towards the Sandy Hook peninsula, the steam engines carried masses of visitors along the shoreline. Throngs of beachgoers, looking for entertainment near the government outpost and military fortifications at Fort Hancock on the southernmost tip, discovered a halcyon haven for sailors and sojourners. The coves and marshes gave quiet sanctuary to the many pleasure boats anchoring in the small inlets along the beaches reaching out to the sea beyond. The word spread quickly through a barrage of advertising in New York City and local newspapers.

Among the verdant green scenery, seashore marshes and the beauty of the rose cactus on warm summer days, cottages sprung up atop the lush forested hills of Highlands and dotted the seashore on the peninsula. The grand summer cottages lining the south side of Highland Beach hoped for protection from the angry seas in tempestuous weather rising from the ocean at all times of the year.

Historian John King noted in his article, “The Brightest Star of a Constellation in the Highlands Hills”: theatre stars built elegant summer “cottages” in this seaside haven within just over an hour’s time by steamboat or train from the city of Manhattan. Views from the Highlands reached across the peninsula looking at sweeping vistas of New York City and Coney Island. Within this actors’ colony a few of the shining stars represented such prominent names as; Thomas Wallace Keene, John and Nellie McHenry Webster, John and Carol Wheelock, Horace McVicker, W.A. Hayden and J.S. Hoffman, all of whom were famous performing artists.

Neil Burgess, one who shone the brightest, conceived the idea of a grand cottage featuring a castle turret within a short distance across the walking bridge from Highland Beach. The palatial mansion evolved according to plans, drawings, and specifications prepared by Charles and George Palliser, architects renowned for their late Victorian designs and creations. Mr. Burgess earned his fame through female impersonation by playing elderly “widders.” He was often featured in local plays to the amusement of all the theater-goers of the era. By 1905 his star had dimmed. Amid repeated efforts to return to the stage in his former glory, his struggle ended with his death in 1910. Mr. Burgess rests atop the hill at All Saints Memorial Church (The Stone Church) in Navesink, facing his beloved hills of Highlands.

Actor, Neil Burgess, and his house in Highlands, c. 1900

On June 10, 1894, the New York Times wrote:

“The Highlands of Navesink”: The outlook for a good season here is excellent. The place has grown greatly in popularity as a Summer resort since the establishment of the pretty excursion grounds across on the beach, and picnic parties are numerous throughout the season. Ferdinand Fish’s cottage at Highland Beach is occupied by Mr. Barre.

Neil Burgess, the actor, is occupying his villa here….”

Around the turn of the century, another famous actor lived by the sylvan hillsides of Highlands overlooking Highland Beach in his family home. He attended Freehold Military School in New Jersey and graduated from Perkiomen Seminary in Pennsylvania. By 1910, Wallace "Wally" Reid, had left for Hollywood as a silent screen star in such notable movies as the first "Picture of Dorian Gray" (1913) and the classic "The Birth of a Nation” (1915).

Wallace Reid with serial star Ann Little in "The Source" (1918).

Reid, being a devoted son to his mother, stayed in the area over the years. His parents, long-time residents of Highlands, were Hal Reid a famous actor, producer, play and screenwriter and Bertha Westbrook, an accomplished actress, who also lived on top of the hill.

Bertha Westbrook and son, Wallace Reid, c. early 1900s.

The large home was located on Portland Road in Highlands where his mother and actress, Bertha Westbrook, stayed in residence. This perfect setting for a seaside location is on the first rise of Highlands’ hills overlooking Sandy Hook and Highland Beach. Eventually his parents divorced while Wallace was in Hollywood leaving Bertha in the large family home in Highlands. Hal Reid is buried in “The Stone Church” graveyard in the Highlands of Navesink.

Wallace Reid at river’s edge & Reid’s parents’ Highlands family home that burned down.

Injured in a train wreck while filming on location in Oregon (1919), Reid became addicted to morphine. He died in a sanitarium while attempting recovery at the age of 31 years old.

Attracted by the popularity and excitement of the area, movie companies soon discovered this scenic location. An undeveloped rural area had much to offer in recreating the feel of a desolate tropical island, sands and beaches. The American Mutoscope Company filmed “Spanish Battleship Viscaya” off Sandy Hook in February 1898. D. W. Griffith, the motion picture director of great fame, brought the Biograph Company and actors to the Highlands and nearby ocean beaches to shoot four films between 1908 and 1910 featuring stars of great renown; Mack Sennet, Linda Arvidson and Mary Pickford. Having a seat on Highland Beach at front row center during the filming of these early movies, William Sandlass designed an outdoor theatre. At Highland Beach in early 1900’s, the public’s love for movies could be enjoyed under the stars in the Bamboo Garden Airdrome with the Triangle Players from Griffith’s Triangle Fine Arts Studio.

Bamboo Garden Airdrome, Sandlass Pavilion, Highland Beach, c. early 1900s.

The Triangle Players sign shown prominently as a drawing card for visitors to see both inside and outside as they passed by the venue. Founded in 1915, Triangle was envisioned as a prestige studio based on the producing abilities of filmmakers, D. W. Griffith, Thomas Ince and Mack Sennet with headquarters in Culver City, California.

The Bamboo Garden Airdrome featured “Pictures & Dancing Combined” all for the affordable price of one admission. The unique surroundings attracted a large crowd of visitors. The 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 and 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 Sandlass’ alligator, brought from Florida and mounted in New York, was residing high within the tree. In 1909, business was booming and land values in Highlands had more than doubled over a few years. Highland Beach was prepared with Surf House quatrefoil coins (10 cents) given out at the resort during this time period. Possibly, to use at the many attractions within the resort.

This garden 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. Dancing continued until nearly midnight. Summer days filled the beaches on both river and ocean sides of the resort. For those arrivals parched with thirst, the famous New York City Horton’s Ice Cream sign and the Highland Beach ice cream/candy store with thirst-quenching cola was just across the path. Another train pulled into the station as Highland Beach opened its arms to the flood of visitors!

Earl Fuller was a regular star at the renown Rector’s Restaurant in NYC. In 1913, Earl Fuller & his wife spent the summer at the Highland Beach Surf House Hotel. His top billing at the Highland Beach BAMBOO GARDEN and his FAMOUS JAZZ BAND brought out the crowds!

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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