Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Graves of Pirate Island

I learned about Petty’s Island from a photographer friend of mine. About a year ago, he told me about an abandoned graveyard on an island off the Camden (NJ) shoreline—at least that's what I THOUGHT he said. Of course I was up for such an adventure. Problem was, he didn’t know exactly where the island was or how to get to it. He suggested we might have to rent a rowboat. I was intrigued. After a few miscommunications (I don’t hear very well—too many KISS concerts as a teenager), I realized that Glenn, a Professor of Art History, was not talking about a cemetery, he was talking about a tugboat graveyard on the island! Alright, I’m still down with that—it has to do with death and dying.

So I began to wonder why, after living in Philadelphia for thirty years, I had never heard of this island. After talking about it with several people, including fisherman with whom I work, I realized that no one seemed to know about it! I became more intrigued. I pictured a small tree-covered expanse of land, closer to the Jersey side of the river, littered with scuttled rusty tugs and other nautical detritus. Glenn and I would row out to it in the mist, across the channel, cameras and adrenaline at the ready.

I did some research. Around the late 1700s, Petty’s Island was a — PIRATE HANGOUT! A robbers’ nest for seafaring criminals who either knew they were wanted by the authorities or did not expect to be welcomed by them with open arms. Since they could not set foot on the mainland, they would drop anchor on Petty’s Island, where they probably built the first gambling casinos and slots parlors (I would assume). Man, if I had a metal detector, I wouldn’t be looking for lost rings at the beach in Atlantic City, I’d be on this island! I mean, I kind o fancy meself a pirate anyway—I carry an old, wooden-handled iron hook with me when I go exploring in abandoned cemeteries (as my father used to say, it’s not the dead you need to fear—it’s the living). And I’ve been known to enjoy the odd pirate cruise, which is a fine way to meet comely wenches (see "Philly Pirate Cruise" link below).

And just so you don’t think Petty’s Island is just ANY old pirate island, here’s its pedigree:

[Petty’s Island] is thought to be the place where Captain Blackbeard docked his ship when visiting Philadelphia. The island was a hotbed for gambling and dueling in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and acquired a reputation for lawlessness and danger; adding to this danger was the large number of shipwrecks which occurred around the island, some of which are still visible at low tide.  —Wikipedia

Cap'n Ed
Okay, so now I really wanted to explore this island! But where exactly was it? At one point I told Glenn of a small nautical map and chart shop near the river—The Pilothouse. One day I stopped in to ask some questions. Pirate books lined the windows—“Terror on the High Seas,” “Scallywags of the Caribbean,” that sort of thing. I was feeling the total swashbuckler when I entered the empty store. A little old man (no eye patch) came out of the back and asked if he could help me. I said, yes, and that I might be looking for a map, or some information. “Someone told me there was this island off Camden with an old ship's graveyard” I swear he responded in near-hushed tones: “Aye, sounds like ye be speakin’ o’ Petty’s Island!

So I guess you’ve… been there?” I asked, hesitantly. He said no, but he knew people who had (and lived to tell about it, I hoped.) I asked if he could show me there the island is on one of his maps. He went over to a rack of rolled up charts, chose one carefully, and brought it back to the counter. He unrolled it, weighed the edges down, and began tracing the Delaware River with his finger from Wilmington north. While doing so, I asked, “Do you know how people can get to the island?” To which he replied, “Well, there’s a bridge. You can drive over.” What? Oh. My grandiose piratical fantasy fizzled out.

Then his fingertip lands on the part of the map depicting Petty’s Island. It’s the size of Texas. It’s no small, tree-covered island at all! No wonder no one knows its there—if you look across the Delaware River at Camden from the Philadelphia side, the coast line you see is actually the freaking ISLAND, It’s that big! (Between 300 and 400 acres, by some accounts, just under the Jersey side of the Ben Franklin Bridge.) Another fantasy dashed. The island is separated from Camden by a narrow river channel. To add insult to injury, the mapseller THEN adds, “I think it’s owned by CITGO, they have an oil refinery there.” Turns out the island is actually owned by the Venezuelan government (!), which in turn owns CITGO. Whaaatt…?

The Island
Hugo Chavez owns it. New Jersey controls it. Developers and environmentalists covet it. And one brazen trespasser wants us to pay homage to its forgotten king. Welcome to Petty's Island, a fin-shaped slice of strange, in the middle of the Delaware River.

—Otterbein, Philadelphia City Paper, Jan. 26, 2010

Glenn had not played me for a fool. He just had the same limited information as everyone else. Perhaps he had come across the newspaper article cited above. This article refers to a Northeast Philadelphia cemetery in which descendants of the island’s “King,” Ralston Laird, are buried. Not content with simply referencing Otterbein’s account, I went to the Knights of Pythias Cemetery in North Philly (near Juniata Park) to find and photograph the stone myself. This cemetery, like some others in the Philadelphia area, was at some point left to ruin (which brings to mind homeboy Ben Franklin’s quote: "Show me your cemeteries, and I'll tell you what kind of people you have"). Happily though, this particular cemetery in which we find the Laird family plot, seems to be undergoing restoration. About a third of the grounds is still an overgrown forest, with an oddly imposing twenty-foot-high bamboo glade enveloping dozens of headstones smack dab in the middle of the woods! This certainly gave a more tropical feel to my pirate adventure.

Laird was one of the final inhabitants of Petty’s Island, having died in 1911. He’d immigrated from Ireland to Philadelphia in the 1850s, but due to persecution of the Irish, he adopted Petty’s Island as his home. During the 52 years he lived there, he welcomed other immigrants who were having difficulty adjusting to their new world. A community was built, people fished, farmed, and lived with minimal taxation. After Laird’s death, the island appears to have been purchased by the Venezuelan government, and used as an oil refinery/holding facility for its national petroleum company, CITGO.

The island’s history is brief. Originally purchased from the Lenni Lenape Indians in 1678 by Elizabeth Kinsey (a Quaker who had fled persecution in England), it was later sold to William Penn (in 1681). John Petty bought it in 1732. The island’s pirate era may have coincided with its period as a slave trading depot, in the late 1600 to early 1700s.

Petty's Island, showing access road from Camden
During an excursion to Camden in search of the nearby abandoned Johnson Cemetery (see link BELOW), I found the access road to the bridge to Petty’s Island to be gated and guarded by CITGO personnel. After a few phone calls, I was told that it was private property and that no one was allowed on the island save employees. I don't know about you, but that sounds like an invitation to me!

Further Reading:

"The Island" in Philadelphia City Paper
The Fight to Save Petty’s Island
The Film, “Petty's Island: A Sacred Part of America’s Story” 
Philly Pirate Cruise
Links to Abandoned Johnson Cemetery blogs: (1) and (2)