A collection of artifacts and souvenirs tells a forgotten story of summer at the Jersey Shore.
By Rick Geffken
Time has a funny way of erasing the past. Ask your average New Jerseyan to name the state’s most cherished seaside getaway from the past century, and the answer you’re likely to hear is Atlantic City…or possibly one of the resort towns along the Jersey Shore. Pose the same question to their great-grandparents and you might be perplexed by their response: Highland Beach.
Beginning at the end of the 1800s—and going right up through the Great Depression—a sunny summer day might ﬁnd upwards of 15,000 people crowding onto Sandy Hook, hoping to beat the heat and enjoy the myriad amusements provided by entrepreneur William Sandlass. Sandlass created an utterly unique destination for families who couldn’t afford a fancy summer home or an Atlantic City vacation. Highland Beach developed into a combination day-trip playground and summertime bungalow community, complete with roller coasters, boating and swimming events, souvenir shops, grocery stores, nightclubs and restaurants. Kids made lifelong friends at Highland Beach. Countless romances blossomed there.
All that’s left today of this grand and wondrous place is a single, dilapidated house in the shadow of the new bridge that connects Highlands to The Hook. The building’s peeling exterior obscures what was once the central element of a grand resort—the realized vision of Sandlass, who stood on one of the state’s most desolate pieces of property and dreamed up a middle ground between the chaos of Coney Island and the opulence of Atlantic City. He built it and they came. By the millions. Highland Beach was New Jersey at its very best.
Editor’s Note: A documentary on Highland Beach will be screened at the 2017 Garden State Film Festival. It can be viewed at destinationspast.com. The images for this story were provided by the Sandlass family. The photo at right was taken by the author. For more information on efforts to preserve the Sandlass House, visit the Friends of Highlands Beach, NJ Facebook page.