A place that has been a mystery to many residents of Camden County and Philadelphia for centuries is now open to the public for free tours, and it’s in a state of transition.
The island has had several names over the years, but is currently known as Petty’s Island, in Pennsauken Township. It sits in the middle of the Delaware River between Camden’s Biedman neighborhood and the Port Richmond and Fishtown sections of Philadelphia. The massive property has been used for a variety of purposes for thousands of years, and it continues to evolve today. Once home to Native Americans, it was later used by the Dutch West India Company, a Quaker named Elizabeth Kinsey, island namesake John Petty, the slave trading industry, William Cramp’s shipbuilding company, the Willow Grove resort, and a refinery.
There were plans by Cherokee Investment Partners at the turn of the 21st century to bring over 700 homes, a hotel, a golf course, and other development, but those fell through following the discovery of bald eagles residing on the island.
Today, it’s owned by Venezuelan government’s Citgo Petroleum Corporation, which uses the northern portion for industrial purposes, though not for much longer. The oil tanks are being removed, and the oil terminal on the property closed 17 years ago. Plus, the Crowley Maritime Corporation’s terminal on the central portion of the island, which was recently used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to send supplies to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria, will close in 2018.
This is all being done as part of Citgo’s plan to donate the island to the state of New Jersey in 2020, according to NJTV News. Once under state ownership, the New Jersey Natural Lands Trust will convert the entire island into a nature preserve, which will include a visitor and cultural center at the site of an existing three-story loading dock.
After being closed to the public for ages, residents and visitors, including schoolchildren, are now able to cross the bridge from New Jersey on select days. New Jersey Audubon, in partnership with the Camden County Historical Society, Delaware Riverkeeper, and the Cooper River Watershed Association, regularly offers free tours of the southern portion of the island.
Attendees are informed of the island’s history and natural features, as well as its future, while often observing wildlife and overlooking the Ben Franklin Bridge and the skyline of Center City Philadelphia. Other events hosted on the island include cleanups, birdwatching, photography workshops, and even after dark tours. Advance registration is required for all programming.
Petty’s Island is just a mile from the 36th Street Station on NJ Transit’s River Line Light Rail, but visitors are not permitted to cross the bridge on foot. So, you’ll need to drive or hire a car from that point. The ride will only take a few minutes.