In the Delaware River off Camden sits Petty’s Island. You can call it treasure island, too — it’s rich in its views of the mainland, the wildlife and a history traced back 10,000 years to the first inhabitants. In the late 1600s, the Lenni Lenape sold the “use rights” to a Quaker named Elizabeth Kinsey.
“They reserved the right to hunt and fish here provided that she made the initial payment and then annual payments of rum and gunpowder. And, for that they promised that as long as they can still hunt and fish and pick a root, they promise they wouldn’t slaughter her hogs or burn her fields so it was an interesting exchange,” said Bob Shinn, treasurer of the Camden County Historical Society.
Shinn says the island has been used for numerous industries, and eventually became a hub for shipping and oil refining and later oil storage. Citgo Petroleum owns it now. That means Venezuela, which owns Citgo, owns the island.
A few years ago, developers wanted to build golf course, expensive housing, hotel and make it exclusive. Major oil companies and preservationists joined forces and said “no.”
“If you work hard, you can expand the supply of public space,” said Shinn.
“It was an initiative on Citgo’s part as part of our environmental stewardship project,” said Jack McCrossin, manager of environmental health, safety and security.
Petty’s Island is undergoing a major transition. Volunteers come here collecting trash. Heavy industrial equipment cuts the 25 oil tanks into sheets of metal for recycling and removes from the ground thousands of feet of metal pipes. Citgo is paying millions of dollars to remediate the property after the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez agreed to donate it to the state in 2020. Citgo also will donate $3 million for a cultural center and for the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Natural Lands Trust to manage the property to preserve it and protect its wildlife.
“It’s going to be a great addition to the environmental and parks system in the region,” said McCrossin. “There are too few locations, particularly in such an urban area. The island sits literally between Philadelphia and Camden and we are a stone’s throw away from a city that historically has been named one of America’s poorest cities, one of America’s most dangerous cities. Yet, when we get students from Camden that come here to the island, within half of an hour of walking on the trail at the southern end of the island, they get to see whitetail deer, wild turkeys, fox and a bald eagle and that’s something that you don’t typically find in an urban area.”
“I don’t know of any other location in New Jersey or along the East Coast where you have a wildlife preserve this big, this close to population centers. And it’s kind of what I call a social justice issue because in Camden and along the waterfront of Philadelphia the residents have been subjected to all kinds of, what I call, environmental abuse,” said Shinn.
But soon, all of that will be part of the rich history of Petty’s Island as it makes a major return to nature.