"A most happy imitation of nature": A Brief History of Gray's Ferry

Detail from an 1802 map of Philadelphia published by Charles P. Varle, from the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection.

Gray’s Ferry was once the easiest way to come to Philadelphia if traveling by land from the South. Since the late 1600s’, there had been a ferry across the Schuylkill River here. Brothers George and Robert Gray, who inherited the land in the 1740’s, widened the road and built an inn and tavern on the West Bank of the Schuylkill River. However, this was destroyed during the Revolutionary War and troops built a floating bridge where the ferry was.

1816 painting from The Sketchbook of Captain Joshua Rowley Watson showing the Gray's Ferry floating bridge, Gray's Ferry Tavern, and stairs to a portion of Gray's Gardens, www.philamuseum.org

After the war, George and Robert rebuilt their own floating bridge here and collaborated with Samuel Vaughan to design pleasure gardens at this location. The Gray’s Tavern and Gardens thus became a popular destination. The Gardens offered a view of the Schuylkill River and were described as having large trees, exotic plants and fruits, a variety of flowers, and a winding path.

An 1830 view of the Gray's Ferry Floating Bridge, with Gray's Tavern and Gardens in the background by George Lehman, digitallibrary.hsp.org

The Gray’s Gardens had a romantic aura. In 1787, Reverend Manasseh Cutler, visted the Tavern and Gardens, calling the garden pathways "a most happy imitation of nature." However, Gray’s Gardens no longer existed after the 1850’s. The tavern and gardens lost popularity in the nineteenth century as this area became heavily industrialized. 

"A most happy imitation of nature": A Brief History of Gray's Ferry