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Highland Beach Resort, GREAT SWITCHBACK RAILROAD, c. 1889. – Courtesy of Sandlass Family Archives

“I can just imagine the excitement, and the screams of the ladies, one hand holding onto the car and one holding onto their hats, as the car plummeted at what then was breakneck speeds. How many ladies had to be revived from a swoon at the bottom of the ride, with men patting their cheeks, calling their names, and fanning them with newspapers, straw hats or handkerchiefs. Oh, the excitement!” -John King, historian

Thompson's Switchback Railway at Coney Island, 1884. – “LaMarcus Thompson – Wiki”

A day at the seashore promised bathers an unforgettable experience below the Twin lighthouses of Highlands.

The first and only resort on Sandy Hook drew crowds each day by the thousands seeking refuge from the sweltering heat surrounding New Jersey and New York City.

Around this time, famous spots such as Coney Island started to emerge as day trip destinations for city dwellers. To provide more of a draw, Coney Island added its first carousel in 1876, followed by the nation’s first roller coaster in 1884. The Thompson Switchback Railroad was installed by LaMarcus Thompson himself... At this point, Highland Beach was ready to launch as a major New York area tourist destination, and the market was more than ready. In the heat of New York City summers, throngs of workers and young families sought escape from the sweltering temperatures, not to mention the stench from thousands of horses and poor sanitary systems in New York. A day by the sea, with fresh air, cool breezes, swimming and picnics provided welcome relief, and Highland Beach was open for business!” – Chris Brenner, Destinations Past: Highland Beach, 2017 Documentary

Roller coasters had been thrilling spectators and riders nearby since the appearance of the gravity railroad in 1884 at Coney Island. It wasn’t long before Highland Beach advertised a “Great Switchback” gravity railroad on the shores of Sandy Hook. The shout “climb aboard!” resonated above the ocean waves. Signs posted nearby advertised, GREAT SWITCHBACK R.R., THE FINEST SPORT on EARTH, 5 cents ROUND TRIP! With only gravity to provide the force, the early-style coaster hurtled passengers up and down an undulating track approximately six hundred feet long at a reckless speed of six miles per hour on the gravity railroad designed by LaMarcus Thompson. When reaching the farthest point on a fifty-foot-high platform, passengers exited and awaited the cars that would return them to the starting-point.

Coasters were used to provide thrill rides even as far back as the first coasters designed in seventeenth-century Russia carved out of ice.

The roller coasters we know today are the descendants of ice slides that were popular in Russia in the 16th and 17th centuries, like this one depicted in an 18th-century Russian engraving.

Creator: De Agostini Picture Library, Credit: DeA /Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Getty Images

Soon after the 1884 Coney Island coaster was installed, Thompson’s quickly evolving technology brought a new scenic railway designed in a continuous loop to Atlantic City.

Thompson, who built 50 more Switchbacks in the United States and Europe, went on to construct the Scenic Railway on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J., in 1887. It was a rolling tour through elaborate artificial scenery—vividly colored tableaus, biblical scenes, and flora—illuminated by lights triggered by the approaching cars. This ride was the precursor of Space Mountain at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., and other 20th-century theme-park journeys. – “Scenic Railway | ride, Atlantic City, New Jersey, United States | Britannica.

The Scenic Railway at Luna Park, Melbourne, is the world's second-oldest operating roller coaster, built in 1912. – “Roller Coaster – Wikipedia”

The Great Switchback Railroad at Highland Beach became an issue when LaMarcus Thompson brought a court action suit to have it removed due to a patent infringement. Thompson won his suit, and the roller coaster at Highland Beach was replaced with a new set of amusements to please the ever-growing crowds. In 1893, Will Sandlass moved forward with his enterprising spirit. A long boardwalk was added so that patrons could sit on the platform under a shaded area to enhance their comfort while looking out at the ocean.

The Sandlass crew added more stores and buildings. Will constructed a Fruit & Cigar Store, as well as billiards and bowling venues, in place of the roller coaster near the seawall. Will’s frugal and innovative nature as the son of a woodworker influenced his choice to build the new structure with timbers from the roller coaster on the amusement ride’s original footprint. The Sandlass family lived on the second floor above the store. The pot-bellied stove on the first floor of the Fruit & Cigar Store was a mainstay during the long winters. The family faced storms on the coast with only a sea wall for protection. On the right side of the store stood a great rock barrier, the only buffer for the advancing ocean waves during the perilous storms that rocked the seacoast. Billiards, bowling and a “Bamboo Bar” became available to provide delights for the thrill-seekers still forming lines as the trains and steamboats came puffing towards the peninsula on warm summer days.

The Sandlass House at Highland Beach excursion resort. William Sandlass and his mother, “Annie”, are standing in front of the first-floor entrance to the Fruit & Cigar Store with their family living apartments on the second floor, c. 1893.

“At Highland Beach, with its swimming, boating, switch-back roller coaster and carousel, there seemed to be no limit to the sun and fun. At the tip of Sandy Hook however, was a reminder that the world was also getting smaller, Fort Hancock boasted the nation’s most sophisticated harbor defenses, and later served as a proving ground for some of the world’s most powerful weapons of war.” -Mark Stewart, quoted in an exhibit showcasing Highland Beach legends and artifacts at the Twin Lights Museum.

The Jersey Shore sunseekers had faced dangers from fires and storms in previous years. World War I threatened the United States when it joined the war in April 1917. Although the general population felt protected by an ocean from the menace abroad, they did not account for the changes in technology and communications over the decades that made them vulnerable on the Atlantic coast. During the war, German U-boats along the East Coast sank close to one hundred vessels and left more than four hundred people dead. German U-boats began to stalk the coast of Sandy Hook, creating fear. Americans were asleep to the threat before the lights-out drills practiced onshore. Communities were increasingly faced with dangers lurking in the waters off the coastline. A U-boat was bold enough to shell Fort Hancock one summer evening. At the north end of Sandy Hook, shots from the vessel landed near the Coast Guard station. Fortunately, no damage was done. The next year, eighteen French soldiers were stationed at Fort Hancock testing large field pieces. The recoil from the guns was so strong that it shook the earth for miles around. The nearby residents were kept busy trying to protect their porcelain and pictures from falling.

Sandy Hook Proving Ground predates Fort Hancock by more than 20 years. New weaponry was tested here until 1919, when the proving ground moved to Aberdeen, Maryland. - NPS ARCHIVES

Entrance to Sandy Hook Proving Ground, 1911. This entrance shared a boundary line with the Highland Beach excursion resort. The sign says, SPEED LIMIT 12 mph., while the buggy heads over the line to Highland Beach Resort. – “Sandy Hook Proving Ground – Wikipedia”

Highland Beach Resort excursion landing. – Courtesy of the Historical Society of Highlands

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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