After a 20-minute boat ride - on an old-style sternwheeler - two miles down the magnificent Ohio River from Parkersburg, you are transported 200 years back in time. Blennerhassett Island is one of the most famous islands on any river in the country. Owned by the DuPont Corporation, the island is leased to the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources and operated as a Historical State Park.
The focal point of the island is the Blennerhassett Mansion. Built in 1800 by Irish immigrants Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett, the mansion was one of the most beautiful and extravagant of its time. It was the center of the social world in the then Northwest Territory as the young couple used their island paradise to draw guests by the thousands. The mansion was built in the curved, Palladian style similar to Mount Vernon. It comprises three buildings connected by covered walkways, the main two-story house and two outbuildings, a kitchen on one side and Harman's study, laboratory and wine cellar on the other.
In addition to the elegant estate Harman built on the island, the island also holds claim to another place in history because Aaron Burr, a former Vice President, visited the island three times and convinced Blennerhassett to bankroll his ill-fated plan to conquer the Spanish Southwest (now Texas) and form a new country with himself as its head of state. When word of their plan reached President Thomas Jefferson, he had Burr and Blennerhassett arrested in 1806 and charged with treason. After a six-month trial, Burr was acquitted and both men were released. During his incarceration, Blennerhassett's island plantation was occupied by the Virginia Militia. They ransacked the home searching for weapons, ammunition, food and liquor. After his release, Harman never returned to the island. Instead, he and his family moved to Mississippi where he tried his hand at growing cotton. While he was successful for a time, the War of 1812 and a cotton embargo nearly ruined him.
Penny Canfield from the Randolph County Senior Center helps to pilot a sternwheel boat to historic Blennerhassett Island near Parkersburg. Several people from the center recently took a trip to the famed site.
The formal dining room, above, as well as the master bedroom and kitchen in the Blennerhassett mansion near Parkersburg has been reconstructed with period furniture.
The mansion was destroyed by fire in 1911. The island was being used to grow hemp, used in making rope and its believed a large supply, stored in Harman's former wine cellar under his study, caught fire. The original foundation was found by archaeologist in 1973. The current structure was built on that foundation and, through historical and archaeological research, accurately recreates the grandeur that was the Blennerhassett home. Prior to the fire that destroyed the original mansion, many of the furnishings had been sold or given away and have since been donated or purchased for inclusion in the current structure. Along with the original pieces, the interior is furnished with other furnishings of the era.
While touring the mansion, knowledgeable docents dressed in period costumes are on hand to offer a look at the life of the time and answer questions. One of the original furnishings on display was Margaret's pianoforte (an early baby grand piano). The docent related that Margaret was an accomplished musician and frequently entertained her guests by playing it. In the kitchen, the docent gave a description of the many cooking utensils sitting in front of the great fireplace. Reflector ovens for cooking meat and pies, various kettles, even a device for toasting bread are all there. Other rooms in the mansion include the formal dining room where the table is set with fine china, silver and crystal, just waiting for the dinner guests to arrive. Both the master bedroom and guest bedrooms and the children's nursery are also recreated.
While it is the focal point, the mansion is not the only thing the island has to offer. It is a haven for wildlife including whitetail deer, foxes, raccoons and over 200 species of birds. Once gone from the area due to the effects of the pesticide DDT, osprey were successfully re-introduced to the area through the combined efforts of DuPont and state and federal agencies. During the the ride over, the captain of the sternwheeler Island Belle informed us to be on the lookout for the bald eagles that now call the area home.
No visit to the island would be complete without taking the horse drawn wagon ride. During the trip around part of the park, the guide pointed other features, including a grove of black walnut trees with a value of over $1 million, the site of a former broom factory, and the remains of the Neale house, a brick structure named after a former owner of the island. Among its notable guest was Walt Whitman who stayed there in 1849 while traveling to New Orleans for a newspaper job. While there, he wrote a poem about the island, "Isle of La Belle Riviere." Other notable visitors included George Rogers Clark, Henry Clay and Johnny Appleseed.
Also on the island is the Putnam-Houser house, built in 1802 across the river in Belpre, Ohio. In 1986, the house was moved by barge to the island and is now fully restored. The house is open for tours on weekends and while unfurnished, it features "viewing windows" cut into the interior walls to allow visitors to see some of the construction techniques used when it was built.
The island offers many walking trails as well as bicycle rentals and there is a snack bar that offers a selection of sandwiches and beverages. There are picnic tables scattered around the grounds along with amble grassy areas that are perfect for spreading out a blanket or quilt and having a family picnic. While the only access to the island is by river boat, interestingly, there is a massive four-lane bridge that crosses above the island. Carrying U.S. Route 50 traffic across the mighty Ohio, the 4,000-feet span was constructed to be inconspicuous from the mansion site. Even the paint scheme was required to blend into the surrounding area. With the exception of the mansion's second floor, the structures are all handicapped accessible and they even have a golf cart to transport guests to and from the boat landing.
The history of Blennerhassett Island extends back to the Ice Age hunters of 13,000 years ago. Native American tribes occupied the island continuously until the 1780s when white settlers began flocking to the Mid-Ohio Valley. The Blennerhassett Museum of Regional History in Parkersburg has an extensive collection of artifacts and tools of these ancient island residents. They also feature a video that tells the tumultuous story of the Blennerhassetts and their life on the island paradise.
About two hours from Elkins and two hundred years from present day, Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park is a great, family-oriented, destination that's relaxing, fun, and educational. If you have an extra day or two, the Parkersburg area offers a number of other attractions that are rich in the history that makes West Virginia truly Almost Heaven.