HISTORY OF ISLAND HEIGHTS
The island, which lies on the north side of the Toms River and at the mouth of Barnegat Bay, was part of the land patent to John Johnston in 1690, a Proprietor of East Jersey. Separated from the mainland by a creek, it became known as Dr. Johnston’s Island. A 1748 survey recorded the name as Toms River Island.
In 1762, the island was bought by the Dillon family, British sympathizers whose son, William, let the Tory attack against the Toms River Block House in 1782. After the Dillons fled to Canada following the Revolution, the 320 acre island became three tracts. The Dillon house still stands, although considerably altered.
In 1877, Reverand Jacob Graw, Presiding Elder of the New Brunswick District of the Methodist Church, selected the site on the bluffs of the island and enlisted the help of twelve additional ministers to “build up a Christian family resort under the influence with camp meetings as a special feature”. The sale of alcohol was forbidden in Island Heights, and within one and a half miles of the camp.
These ministers formed the Island Heights Association on July 1, 1878 and purchased 154 acres, staking out a ten-acre plot at the top of the bluff for the camp meeting ground. After six weeks of clearing trees and brush, the first camp meeting was held on August 23, under the direction of Rev. Samuel Van Sant. During the first year, about 1,500 people traveled by horse and buggy and chartered boats to attend camp meetings.
Small camp meeting cottages were built on three sides of the grounds with a few others scattered nearby. They served as a week or weekend retreat.
Those who came by train from Philadelphia on the Pennsylvania/Long Branch Railroad brought a month’s supply of clothing for their children and maids who stayed at the Island House Hotel, built on the waterfront in 1880.
It is not known where the first organizational meeting of Island Heights was held on May 27, 1887, but the minutes do show that John Simpson, Superintendent of the Island Trestle Bridge across the Toms River from Pine Beach to Island Heights CampMeeting Association, was chosen mayor. Reverend Simpson supervised clearing the space for the campgrounds, grading the streets, and building a substantial wharf for steamers and yachts. Enos W. Rulane and John O’Hara were elected to serve as councilmen for three years. Thomas C. Parsons and William R. Vanschoick were elected for two-year terms, and John Curtis and Jacob P. Smith for one-year terms.
W.H. Simpson was elected borough clerk; Charles Leming and George Migrantz, marshalls; and Benjamin Parker, road commissioner. Councilmen O’Hara and Vanschoick were appointed assessors. The council voted to meet every Friday night. The second meeting was to be held in the Tabernacle on the camp meeting grounds. By 1890 there were 271 permanent residents in Island Heights.
The Wannamaker Camp, located at the eastern end of Island Heights, on the former Westray farm, was a complex of buildings built in 1900 by John Wanamaker, a Philadelphia and New York department store owner. The complex was arranged around a large open space that faced Barnegat Bay. Young employees of the Wanamaker stores were enrolled to spend two weeks at the John Wanamaker Commercial Institutes, a paternalistic system providing education, outdoor activities, military training, and a drum and bugle corps. In the Victorian era this was not considered a vacation, but rather an opportunity to improve one’s discipline and health.
The Island Heights Yacht Club organized on July 28, 1898, built their club-house in 1900. Its yachting activities and the clubhouse have been vital to the social life developing and producing some of Barnegat Bay’s successful sailors from this club.
The pavilion, built in 1890, is at the east end of the boardwalk that follows along the waterfront. At one time, band concerts from its second level, and dockside services were held there on Sunday mornings.
St. Gertrude’s chapel, a summer mission church of St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Toms River, built in 1908 in the vernacular Gothic Revival style, accommodated summer visitors to Island Heights. It and St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, built in 1892, positioned at the highest point of the island on Central Avenue, symbolically and physically divided the commercial district and the residential section.
Island Heights’ dense concentration of high style Victorian vernacular structures remains unchanged. These Victorian homes along the waterfront evoke a bygone era in Island Heights’ history after the camp meeting era.
Island Heights Historic Disctrict was placed on the State Register of Historic Places on February 21, 1981 and on the National Register on July 8, 1981.
Numerous artists from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, who sought to paint the natural beauty of landscapes rather than work in the romantic or classical styles of art, were drawn to Island Heights. Its bluffs, river, and saling activities provided many interesting subjects for the canvas. One famous American painter, John Frederick Peto, moved to Island Heights in 1899.
He is considered to be a master of the trompe l’oeil school of American still-life painting. Other artists drawn here formed an art colony of about twenty well-known and lesser-known painters. Years after Peto’s death, his granddaugher maintained his home ans studio as a public accommodation.
Island Heights, as well as its sister camp meeting towns, Ocean Grove and Cape May in New Jersey, has retained its “dry” status, Victorian architecture, and the quiet residential atmosphere of a non-commercial and closely-knit community.
THE NATIVE AMERICANS
Island Heights was also a favorite camping ground for these American Indians. A female skeleton found in Island Heights in 1940 came from a hill between West End and River Avenue. This female skeleton was between twenty-five and thirty years old at her death. James Robinson, who grew up in Island Heights, reported in his old age that there were once two carved posts at the top of the hill indicating an entrance-way into a possible Ceremonial House. Early collectors believed that the Island Heights site was reserved for ceremonial purposes while the nearby Windsor Park, now known as Gilford Park, burial site established the close proximity of a large Indian settlement and revealed the cultural life of the Indians who inhabited that area.