Colonial Ruins On The 12th Hole

September 3, 2013 | by Bradley Maule


Skeleton of The Cliffs | Photo: Bradley Maule

Skeleton of The Cliffs | Photo: Bradley Maule

High above Kelly Drive and the CSX railroad tracks in Fairmount Park, a pile of graffiti covered ruins manages to weave William Penn, Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Wharton, and disc golf into a single story. Just beyond the 12th hole of the Sedgley Woods Disc Golf Course stand the remains of The Cliffs.

The Cliffs, 1931, photographed by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This and three additional photos (including two interiors) are available at the Library of Congress

The Cliffs, 1931, photographed by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This and three additional photos (including two interiors) are available at the Library of Congress

Quaker merchant Joshua Fisher built the Georgian style home in 1753 as a country homestead on land purchased from the Mifflin family, who had owned the land since William Penn’s distribution of his ‘Liberty Lands’. Fisher had moved to Philadelphia in 1746 from Lewes, Delaware, where his family had settled after his grandfather came to America on Penn’s ship Welcome. In addition to operating a successful transatlantic mercantile business, Fisher charted a map of the Delaware Bay, first printed in 1756. Thomas Penn, William’s son, appointed Fisher a surveyor of the Lower Counties of Delaware prior to his relocation.

Fisher and his six children operated their mercantile business from a lot at the rear of their home on bustling South Front Street. The Cliffs served as a spacious retreat where the family would spend entire summers and alternately rent it out. Sarah Franklin Bache, Ben’s daughter, was among its tenants. She lived there during the American Revolution; a letter she sent to Ben in France in 1789 described the house as small and charming.

Fisher’s granddaughter Deborah married William Wharton, whose family owned a tract of land near to The Cliffs. Their son Joseph Wharton co-founded Bethlehem Steel and Swarthmore College, and donated money to the University of Pennsylvania to establish the business school that still carries his name today. Steven Ujifusa wrote a nice bio of Wharton referencing his time at The Cliffs for last year.

Remnants of Mifflin Lane | Photo: Bradley Maule

Remnants of Mifflin Lane | Photo: Bradley Maule

The Cliffs remained in the Fisher family until 1868, when the Fairmount Park Commission purchased it, adding to their collection of colonial mansions. In 1972, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1976, it was among the restorations performed for the Bicentennial.

In 1977, the Philadelphia Frisbee Club held a disc golf tournament at the Belmont Plateau that was so successful, Wham-O (manufacturer of the Frisbee brand) donated 18 “pole hole” baskets and tee signs for a disc golf course, one of the earliest of its kind in America. Park commissioners chose the heavily wooded Sedgley Woods area, a curving swath near The Cliffs and Smith Memorial Playhouse. One of the course’s fairways is a centuries old cobblestone path that was once Mifflin Lane, a path predating the park and city grid that led to The Cliffs.

Alas, an arson’s fire destroyed the home in 1986, within a year of two other park mansions, Greenland and Wakefield, also going up in flames. In his recent story on Fairmount Park for City Paper, former Hidden City Daily contributor Ryan Briggs reported that the Department of Parks and Recreation has elected to leave the site as a ruin.


About the Author

Bradley Maule Bradley Maule is a former co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and the creator of Philly Skyline. He's a native of Tyrone, Pennsylvania, and he's hung his hat in Shippensburg, Germantown, G-Ho, Fishtown, Portland (Oregon), Brewerytown, and now Mt. Airy. He just can't get into Twitter, but he's way into Instagram @mauleofamerica.


  1. Davis says:

    Yeah, sure – leave it as a ruin – that means the SOB\’s win. Balderdash! What is the matter with this city?

    Saddest destructions I can recall :

    1. Benjamin Rush\’s House – demolished – by mistake by the city
    2. Cannonball House – demolished – by mistake by the city
    3. The Cliffs burns to the ground and the city does nothing about it, seemingly declaring it a monument to the general destruction of civilization.

  2. Frank Rizzo says:

    That building is unstable and unsafe. Either fix it or tear it down. It attracts crackheads and graffiti \”artists\”. It is a monument to the miserable failure that is our City government, particularly with regard to maintenance of Fairmount Park, which is now under the wings of the Department of Recreation thanks to our council president.

  3. Lisa says:

    What a shame! And even worse that the ruins are not being properly maintained.

  4. Shawn says:

    None of that grafitti was there until the disc golphers took over. Was much more picturesque then, a truly hidden gem one had to bushwack to get to.

  5. Corporal says:

    When was the last time you actually visited the site and saw a crackhead lingering about? I frequent the site often with my children to play disc golf at Sedgley Woods. The disc golf club, the Friends of Sedgley Woods does an amazing job of keeping the park clean, landscaped and safe for anyone who wants to play. They do this through fundraising and volunteer work, with no cost to the taxpayer or the city. I will admit it is an eyesore and a shame that the city neglected this property (and many others) after a string of arsons in the 1980\’s. But without the Friends of Sedgley Woods maintaining the area around the landmark site, this house would have totally been lost.

    1. Marcus says:

      Honestly, I think I definitely have seen crackheads lingering around there… At the very least, people are openly smoking weed all over the place with little regard to the people around them. Pretty sure I\’ve gotten a contact high just walking up to the first hole…

  6. Corporal says:

    \”The disc golfers did it, the disc golfers did it.\” Without conducting a study of how many disc golfers are actually graffiti artists, your point is nothing but slander. On any given weekend you can find people all ages, all races, all nationalities, and all professions enjoying not only disc golf, but the nature of fairmount park as a whole. My family and I have visited many disc golf courses all around this country, and none of them are covered in graffiti. Many of these courses do have problems of non-players coming in and vandalizing the park, and I believe this is the case in point. The house is totally visible from not only West River and Kelly Drives, but also clearly visible from 76. The property remain virtually graffiti free until a few years ago when a large \”tag\” appeared one day. This is graffiti \”tag\” is so large it acts as a beacon drawing in more artists to try and top it. The city should have stepped in at this point. The Friend of Sedgley Woods do not have the resources to commit to this ongoing vandalization. So before conclusions are being made without ever visiting the actual site or talking to the people involved in the community around it, get the facts right. I saw some graffiti on city hall today while walking to my office. It must be that damn city council, haha right?

  7. History Buff says:

    It\’s nothing but the city\’s fault that this building is in the state it is. There was a series of events leading up to the arson that destroyed that building, which happened at a time when East Fairmount Park had nothing safe to offer us besides that disc golf course. Local police credited the golfers with keeping illegal activity at a minimum because there was always someone in the area and that deterred drug addicts and prostitutes from coming there. The arson was in response to the city\’s bad decision making- basically tax payers were providing funds for city employees to live in these park houses for free, which caused backlash from tax payers and the houses to become abandoned. The arson is believed to have been a result of all this. Restoration or removal of that house is the city\’s responsibility. Now stop looking at the graffiti, and marvel at the well-maintained historic golf course around it that the disc golfers have built, and apologize 🙂

    1. Johnny Domino says:

      Was the Mayor’s Manision into the 1930’s I believe.

  8. Davis says:

    In the winter and early spring this \”tagging\” acts as a beacon for taggers from all over and can be seen vividly from MLK Drive – interestingly the scale and type of tagging is identical to that which now covers the rail road bridge adjacent that crosses the river and drive at that point. I put it to you that the same criminals are guilty of the graffiti on The Cliffs.

    But the guilt for this state of affairs rests with a negligent city.

  9. Testerino says:

    I don\’t like when apostrophe\’s become slash\’s.

    1. Johnny Domino says:

      I hate when that happens

  10. Johnny Domino says:

    Came across The Cliffs tripping through the East Park, maybe summer of 1984 or 1985(?)when I was crashing at some friends in East Falls. Was open and maybe occasionally lived in but still in pretty remarkable shape. Woodwork largely intact and not too much busted up, considering. There was a big barrel vault room in the basement, which might have been secreted behind the paneling if I recall. Wanted to see about the history (and thought it would make an excellent clubhouse for the disc golf course) so I started to ask around. I found a great book in the HSP library that mentioned it, Lights Along the Schuylkill by Marion Rivinus that had a lot of great info about the Park and its structures. You can still find it there! Before I could get much going on that front, it burned, so sad.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.