The Obscure Jersey Shore Neighborhood Where ‘Everybody Knows Everybody’

Residents of the Monmouth Hills community enjoy a peaceful life at one of the Shore’s highest points.

For Monmouth Hills residents like Suzy and Keith Glass, benefits include clubhouse use and stunning views. Photo: R.C. Staab

Derek DeBree’s first encounter with the Hill was when he was three weeks old, brought there by his parents and grandparents to visit the home of friends. For the next 10 years, in the late 1960s and ’70s, he and his brother regularly visited this little-known place called Monmouth Hills—steeply sloped land rising from Sandy Hook Bay to one of the highest points of the Jersey Shore. “We just thought of it as the most unusual, enchanting place,” he says.

The 50 acres of dirt roads, wild paths, and many early-19th century homes made DeBree and his brother feel like they “were going on a vacation, even if we went there for half a day.” They visited their Uncle Schuyler in a house that had once been a mule barn. They played in the Water Witch Clubhouse Casino in the same place their mother had played pingpong as a girl.

DeBree says he forgot about “this incredible place,” until 30 years later, when he serendipitously bought a home there.

Famed 19th-century novelist James Fenimore Cooper frequently visited the hills above Sandy Hook, calling it “one of the most beautiful combinations of land and water in America.” It became the central location for his popular sea adventure, The Water-Witch; Or, The Skimmer of the Seas: A Tale, about a mysterious pirate ship, a strong-willed damsel, and a British captain who often meet at the Lust in Rust boarding house in what eventually became Highlands.

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Late that century, after Cooper’s book was published, the aptly named real estate developer Ferdinand Fish conceived it as an upscale summer-vacation development for wealthy New Yorkers. On the high hill across from the Twin Lights lighthouse, he cleared the land and called it Water Witch Park, after Cooper’s pirate ship, the Water-Witch. Taken with the glorious views of New York City to the north and the Atlantic Ocean to the east, 50 charter members signed on to his project, many of whom were architects and engineers.

Monmouth Hills boasts glorious views of Manhattan Photo: R.C. Staab

Roads were constructed to provide access for those arriving by boat or from the train station in Highlands, at the bottom of the hill. The corporation purchased property on Sandy Hook Bay for a bathhouse and bathing area and had grand plans for golf courses and hundreds of homes, plus businesses and shops on Bay Avenue.

Eventually, the Water Witch Club arose, along with a clubhouse and a casino gathering hall (there’s no gambling here; casino comes from the Italian word for social hall). After the clubhouse was destroyed by fire, an addition was built to the casino with a dining room, sitting room and five bedrooms. The renamed Water Witch Clubhouse Casino became the focal point of the community. Because most houses didn’t have full kitchens, the members walked from their homes along paths, called Cupid paths, that wove throughout the development to the clubhouse, where they dined and congregated.

The Water Witch Club

The Water Witch Club Photo: R.C. Staab

Most of Fish’s plans were never realized because of the Great Depression, but 40 homes were built, mostly in a combination of Shingle Style and Colonial Revival architecture. Homes were accessed by serpentine dirt roads that snaked up the hill, past peanut-stone walls with then state-of-the-art irrigation. In the late 1950s, for the first time, more modern homes were constructed.

Surprisingly, 23 of the original homes, updated for year-round living, are still standing on the Hill today; there are 41 homes in total. Eventually, the official name of the nonprofit corporation of homeowners (aka shareholders) was changed to Monmouth Hills Inc., part of Middletown Township. With the help of the township and the state, the Monmouth Hills Historic District is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Although the enclave might sound like an upscale country club, resident Keith Glass likens it to a different summer experience. “I went to camp for 14 summers: seven as a kid, seven I worked,” says Glass, who lives on the Hill with his wife, Suzy Glass. “This is the closest thing to camp: the dirt roads; there are no lampposts; there’s no light at night. These are more expensive bunks to me. You know everybody. It’s a high-level camp.”

Time and again in conversations with residents of the Hill, a familiar mantra is repeated: “Everybody knows everybody.” But, almost no one was even vaguely familiar with Monmouth Hills before moving there—even though it has two entrances right off busy Route 36 and is only two miles from the Sandy Hook Unit of the Gateway National Recreation Area.

Suzy Glass grew up about 10 miles away, in Monmouth Beach, and had never seen or heard of Monmouth Hills until she and her husband were looking to downsize from a house in Rumson. When they drove up the road for the first time, she said, “For me to hit these roads and not know where I was, that was transcending.”

When they entered their eventual home in 2016, Keith Glass says it conveyed the image of the name on the placard by the door, Seadrift Cottage (Seadrift is a nickname of the pirate in Cooper’s book). “We went upstairs, and I said to Suzy, ‘There’s an ocean out there.’ But we didn’t have a view. Trust me, there’s an ocean on the other side of those trees.” They carefully trimmed the trees that had grown in earnest over 100 years. Now, the cottage’s veranda looks out past the Twin Lights to the Atlantic Ocean.

“There are no mansions up here,” he says. “These are quaint, historic homes.” Their three-bedroom, 3 1/2-bath, 2,400-square-foot home suits them just fine now that their eight children are on their own. “We live out on the veranda.”

Across the street from Seadrift Cottage is the two-story Water Witch Clubhouse, which Keith and Suzy, as residents, can reserve for free. They host parties and gatherings there. “The kids can all run around, so they don’t have to be confined to our house,” he says. Inside the clubhouse is a dining room, a bar room with a pool, a kitchen, and an old library indexed on hand-written cards with the names of the books and authors. Outside is a lone tennis court, a reminder of the grand ambitions of the founders for a summer recreational community.

The Water Witch Clubhouse is rented out to the public for events, frequently in the late summer and fall, because it doesn’t have air-conditioning. On a 1.4- acre lot, still mostly devoid of trees, it has commanding views of Sandy Hook, New York and western Long Island. With an event space that includes a small stage, it’s a unique venue for weddings. Bruce Springsteen played on that stage at the wedding of his drummer, Max Weinberg.

Just as its founders intended, the clubhouse serves as a community gathering place. Halloween is particularly festive. Starting and ending at the clubhouse, children and adults walk together house to house over more than a mile of roads, stopping at homes on Coquette Lane (the captain’s ship in the novel), Witches Lane, Serpentine Drive, and Fennimore Terrace, the misspelling of James Fenimore Cooper’s name on the original plans having never been corrected.

Almost everyone in Monmouth Hills lives there year-round.

For Monmouth Hills board president Don Claussen, the Hill is like “Vermont surrounded by water.” The shared southern border with the county’s 794-acre Hartshorne Woods Park was a key attraction for his family’s decision to move there. “We’re runners and hikers and bikers,” he says. “We spent so much time in Hartshorne that we became attached to it.” When one of the homeowners invited them to a porch party, they were sold, knowing they could access the park directly from the Hill.

Upkeep of trees, roads, gutters and storm drainage is a major task for the board. Claussen marvels at “how sophisticated they were in the 1800s, thinking about drainage and these roads, especially going from 220–224 feet elevation all the way down to the sea level in a short period of time.”

The Borough of Highlands is less inclined to marvel at the drainage. When it rains for hours, raging waters cascade down Waterwitch Drive, closing off Route 36 and creating a muddy mess in the town below. Although the Hills lies within Middletown Township, Claussen says Monmouth Hills Inc. is working with the borough on a FEMA grant to build resilient infrastructure to not only catch the water to remove sediment, but to slow the water down before it gets to Highlands. Claussen says, “I think we’re going to be a poster child for the Shore on how you control stormwater in this new environment.”

He says, “I want someone to read 100 years from now that the board that I’m responsible for kept the clubhouse intact, kept what Ferdinand Fish and all those guys wanted from this community.”

Despite the challenges, when asked what it’s like to live on the Hill, Claussen responds, “Hartshorne Woods, a ferry ride to the city, the beach clubs in Sea Brights, or the restaurants and bars in Highlands and Atlantic Highlands. Who lives like this?  People ask me, ‘Where are you going on vacation this summer?’ Why would I go on vacation? We live here. This is vacation in the summer.”

Fellow board member DeBree also knows about the challenges of living in a historic community. Not having thought about the Hill for many years after visiting as a child, he was hired to sell one of the homes by a longtime owner. “Candidly, we didn’t have much luck selling it because it was in a very poor state,” he says. “The more I looked at it, the more I realized I could save it. I ended up making him an offer. He accepted.”

He was concerned what his wife would think about the house, given its terrible condition. DeBree says, “There were animals actively living in it. There was a lot of mold. She just trusted me to make it right.”

DeBree expects his family’s involvement will continue with his son, Emmett, and daughter, Schuyler. As the original developers intended, Schuyler leaves her home in the East Village on weekends, seeking respite from the city, crossing the harbor on a boat, and traveling up Waterwitch Drive to the Hill. His daughter’s friends are “just blown away that a place like this even exists in New Jersey.”

“I think they’d be the last to leave the Hill now,” DeBree says of his children. “They will fight to keep this property in the family forever. It’s very special to us.”

R.C. Staab is a travel writer, book author, and wildlife and Jersey Shore enthusiast.

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