Chris Brenner, below, made the above video to shed light on a vanishing piece of Sandy Hook history.  (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)


chris brennerFair Haven resident Chris Brenner was fishing the Shrewsbury River one day last summer when low tide exposed the vestiges of a pier on the western side of Sandy Hook.

Brenner knew what the pier had been: part of a sprawling resort called Highland Beach that thrived for some 80 years years at that location. His mother, Jill, and late father, Ted, had even met there in the 1940s, at a popular bar called the Bamboo Room.

But looking to his right, as a stream of cars brought visitors across the Route 36 Azzolina Bridge to a park that’s now part of the federal Gateway National Recreation Area, Brenner wondered to himself: How many of those people even know what was once here?

highland beach postcardA postcard of the resort in its early days. (Click to enlarge)

That was the starting point for a six-month project that yielded a 44-minute video about the history of Highland Beach, Brenner said.

Brenner, 44 49, works in the computer field, and has little experience in video outside of shooting his kids’ sports events, he told redbankgreen. His only prior documentary work was a family history he compiled a few years ago.

But doing that project, “I really kind of took a liking” to the work, he said.

Brenner dove into his late father’s collection of postcards and images amassed by the late Rumson historian George Moss. He also tracked down people who provided visuals and historical perspective, including Susan Sandlass Gardiner, a granddaughter of the resort’s founder, William Sandlass Jr.

Gardiner, who now lives in Maryland, was raised in a house that once stood in the middle of what’s now the tollway entrance to the park and is now beside it, the last remaining structural vestige of Highland Beach.

For decades, Highland Beach was a thriving location as an excursion destination for citydwellers, who arrived by rail and ferry, as amply detailed in Brenner’s account.

By the 1940s, the Bamboo Bar “was the hot spot to go to,” akin to a place like the more-recently vanished Donovan’s Reef in Sea Bright, Brenner said.

But the rising dominance of the automobile killed the trains and ferries, and the Sandlass family turned their property into a beach club serving seasonal, rather than short-term, visitors.

The Sandlasses lost the property to eminent domain in 1962, when the Army leased the south end of Fort Hancock to the state of New Jersey on the condition that it be used as a park.

The Sandlass house is now slated for demolition, having been damaged by Hurricane Sandy, said Brenner. A spokesman for Gateway could not be immediately reached for comment.

Brenner calls his video “a labor of love,” but tagged it “Destinations Past,” he said, because he may create additional documentaries about once-thriving, now-forgotten sites along the nearby Bayshore.

“A couple of properties have similar histories,” he said. “They had a lot of amusement parks, hotels and beach resorts, all of which faded out” after the rise of the automobile killed the railroads and ferries.