- The Washington Times - Friday, July 4, 2003

PARKERSBURG, W.Va. — Kim and Nathan Heckathorn are tourists who prefer to wander, choosing random two-lane roads and driving with no particular destination.

They hope for something scenic, historic, entertaining and affordable.

About 300 miles southeast of their home in Toledo, Ohio, they found a 500-acre island in the Ohio River that offered all of that. With its romantic and tragic history, they say, Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park is a day-tripper’s dream.

“This must be a hidden treasure for the state, really, because we’ve been to West Virginia numerous times and we’ve never heard of it,” Kim Heckathorn says. “It’s just fantastic.”



In many ways, Blennerhassett Island is like any other state park, but it also has a reconstructed 19th-century mansion with guides who don period costumes to tell the tale of Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett, wealthy Irish aristocrats who loved, lived lavishly, then lost it all.

The day before the Heckathorns took the 20-minute stern-wheeler ride to the island, they visited a downtown museum that holds the remains of the Blennerhassett fortune: poems jotted in a book smaller than the palm of a hand; some china; a pocketbook; a silver baby cup; tiny, hand-painted family portraits; stones from the mansion gate.

“It’s what is left after such a prosperous and highfalutin’ life,” Kim Heckathorn says. “There’s so little left.”

The Blennerhassetts fled Ireland in the 1790s because their family frowned on their marriage. Harman was also Margaret’s uncle.

The couple began crossing the Appalachians in 1796, searching for a place to build a home. They spent the winter in Pittsburgh and resumed their journey the following summer.

From a bluff in Ohio, they spotted what was then called Belpre Island. The Blennerhassetts bought it, then spent nearly three years building a 7,000-square-foot mansion, their version of paradise.

“Can you imagine, in 1800, coming down the river on a flatboat and then all of a sudden you see this stark white mansion on an island in the river?” park Superintendent Donna Smith says. “Two hundred years ago, everyone was living in one-story log houses, and here are these rich people.”

The home was built in the Palladian style, with porticos linking the main structure to the kitchen on one side and Harman Blennerhassett’s study on the other. Records show he stocked it with $1,200 worth of books, equivalent to $40,000 worth today.

The rooms had Oriental carpets, alabaster lamps on silver chains, marble fireplaces and gold clocks. Margaret Blennerhassett had a 2-acre flower garden, and the estate was said to be one of the most elegant in what was then Virginia.

The Blennerhassetts were famous for their parties, reportedly attracting guests such as Gen. James Wilkinson, then commanding general of the Army, and Charles X, the future king of France.

But their most infamous guest, former Vice President Aaron Burr, led to their downfall. Burr went to Blennerhassett in 1805, seeking money for an apparent invasion of Mexico. He used the island to recruit soldiers for his army — until arrest warrants were issued, charging Burr and Harman Blennerhassett with treason.

The men fled, and Margaret Blennerhassett was held prisoner with her children until they, too, were forced off the island.

Burr, who served 57 days in jail, was tried and acquitted. Blennerhassett was then released and later rejoined his family in Mississippi. In 1811, though, their island home burned to the ground, and by the 1830s, they had moved on to England.

The mansion was forgotten for more than a century, Miss Smith says. Then, in 1973, archaeologists discovered the foundation.

Miss Smith, who has overseen the park for seven years and lives in a historic log cabin, says reconstruction cost nearly $1 million. The builders guessed at the floor plan from the foundation and what few written descriptions they had.

They used gold paint instead of gold leaf for the trim in the foyer. They lined one room in black walnut and painted another a rich red.

The nonprofit Friends of Blennerhassett helped furnish the house, using some of the Blennerhassetts’ original, rescued items. Most were auctioned off and ended up in private hands, but others have been preserved and donated. In 1991, the mansion opened to visitors.

The island is owned by DuPont Washington Works. The state leases the land for the park, which draws about 50,000 people a year. That’s down from about 55,000 just three years ago.

Miss Smith doesn’t know what’s behind the decline but says it’s tough for Blennerhassett to compete with large state parks that offer lodges, golf courses and other activities.

The park is offering discounts for the elderly on Wednesdays and family discounts on certain Saturdays to try to boost visitation. It’s an ideal destination for those who enjoy storytelling and the outdoors, Miss Smith says.

“For the mid-Ohio Valley, it’s just part of history,” she says. “If they love history, they should come.”

Places to stay, and sites to see in Blennerhassett

Blennerhassett Island State Historical Park is open during daylight hours from May until September but closed Mondays. Hours are scaled back in the fall, and the island closes for the season Oct. 26.

Admission to the Blennerhassett Museum of Regional History in downtown Parkersburg is $2 per adult. The boat ride is $7, and the mansion tour is $3.

Parkersburg is at the intersection of Route 50, which runs east-west, and Interstate 77, which runs north-south.

The city sits along the Ohio River, about 140 miles southeast of Columbus, Ohio.

Besides popular chain hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns, Parkersburg offers the 104-room Blennerhassett Hotel, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

On the Internet: www.parkersburgcvb.org/Lodging.htm and www.blennerhassetthotel.com.

NEARBY ATTRACTIONS

Cultural Center of Fine Arts, 725 Market St.; 304/485-3859.

North Bend Rail Trail, stretching 72 miles along Route 50 to Clarksburg, through 13 tunnels. Call 304/643-2500 or 800/899-6278, or www.northbendrailtrail.com.

Oil & Gas Museum, 119 Third St. Videos, photographs, equipment and other artifacts show the birth of the oil and gas industry in the 1840s. Call 304/485-5446 or www.little-mountain.com/oilandgasmuseum.

Lee Middleton Original Dolls, 1301 Washington Blvd., Belpre, Ohio. The factory, believed to be the nation’s largest doll-making facility, offers weekday tours. Call 740/423-1481 or 800/233-7479, or www.leemiddleton.com/factorytour/factory.html.

Fenton Art Glass Co., two miles from I-77, Williamstown, W.Va.

For nearly a century, the company has made and sold handblown glass. Call 304/375-7772 or www.fentongiftshop.com.

Holl’s Swiss Chocolatier, 2001 Grand Central Ave., Vienna, W.Va. Family-run company makes European-style chocolates in small batches. Call 304/295-6576 or 800/842-4512, or www.holls.com.

Another Internet contact is www.blennerhassettislandstatepark.com.

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