The Blue Ball Tavern just across Cobbs Creek from Darby Boro about 1910. The small section on the far left is the only part standing today.
Early Horse Racing
The plank road, a stretch of Main St. Darby or Woodland Avenue from what is now Sixtieth Street to Seventy-fourth Street and Island Road, where stands the historic Blue Bell Tavern, was used as a driving course from Colonial days until the middle of the 19th century.There was occasional horse racing from the early history of the city and Main St. was chosen as a course for the reason that it passed by Blue Bell Tavern, which was the resort for fashionable Philadelphians in those days. It was the French residents, who were owners of Arabian horses of great speed that gave life to racing along the Darby Road and brought the plank road course into the limelight.
There were no trotting races until after the American Revolution. Main St. Darby, aka the Plank Road was used by great numbers of riders who dashed up and down when spending the summer at the Blue Bell Tavern.
LAYING OF THE PLANK ROAD – The road was a muddy one, extending originally through slumps and hollows, and to admit of it being used for heavy traffic and transportation, it was covered with planks and boards. The planks were not visible when it was converted into race course, for those of them that had decayed were removed so as to make a modern track and to eliminate all risk to life and limb.
Later, when the trotting became a feature of racing, the jockey rode astride as he did in running or galloping, for that was the custom before the advent of the high-wheeled sulky that afterwards so humanely helped to lessen the burdens of the horse and added to his trotting speed and record by removing the human weight from his back.
Island Road, running south from the Blue Bell Tavern to old Ropes Ferry Bridge, where the Cannon Ball House bridge, the brick walls of which pierced by a cannon ball during the bombardment of Fort Mifflin by Admiral Howe, was a scoring track for horses that participated in the plank road races. No charge was made to witness the races. No incorporated boy had turned the highway into a race course. Though regular programs were followed closely, the races often developed into a free-for-all by enthusiasts carried away by the excitement, who with their nags followed the races after the judge gave the word, “go.”
At the races in 1843 two jockeys were killed, another was seriously injured and one horse’s neck broken when horses of outsiders collided with the regulars during a running match. The nearest thing to a trotting club then was the Philadelphia, many of the members of which patronized the course and are said to have been prime movers in the organization of the Point Breeze Park Association in after years.
Every race, whether in spring, summer or autumn, was followed by a ball at the Blue Bell Tavern. The structure, which was erected in 1764, was in a sense a country club. One writer says it was a tavern “for the gentility of the city.” It contained eight large rooms on the second floor that could be thrown into one to make room for the festivities.
PLENTY OF GAME – Darby Creek, a few feet away, abounded with fish and along its banks for miles there was plenty of game, pheasants, partridges, rabbits and squirrels – until the Civil War broke out.
In the early days of the old tavern Democrats and Whigs went there to get inspiration, drink their mugs of ale and decide upon their plans of campaign. It is chronicled that Washington was a guest more than once and especially when he marched from Neshaminy Falls through the city to “Darby” Creek, where he camped on his way to Wilmington to await the arrival of General Howe.
Governor Mifflin, General Knox, Blair McClenahan and other noted men are credited with being entertained by Lewis Davis, one of the tavern’s proprietors. General Lafayette during his visit in 1824, while making a tour of the suburbs with the committee having charge of his reception, “was entertained at a dinner of beef steak and oysters.”
It is claimed that in 1809 when Thomas Leiper connected his stone quarries on Crum Creek with Ridley Park by railroad, said to be the first in the country, the plans were decided upon by him and Reading Howell a civil engineer, in the Blue Bell Tavern.