Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Blennerhassett Island

In the middle of the Ohio River, on the border of West Virginia and Ohio, there is an island. It's had many names over the years - Backus Island, Eden, and others in languages long forgotten. It's been the home of people probably since time began, and one visit will tell you why.

Today it's known as Blennerhassett Island, from the surname of Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett, who were its most famous residents. They built their home here in 1798, which you can still see today.

Actually this palladium-style mansion is a reconstructed one, built on the original site of the Blennerhassett Mansion. It follows the same footprint, contains the same details and furniture, and tells one heck of a good story!

Harman was an Irish aristocrat who sold off his family's lands in Ireland and came to America. This was not only because he was fleeing the Irish Rebellion (of which he was a supporter), but also because he had married his niece, Margaret - not something that was looked kindly upon by the church or society.

They settled on the Island and built this home using their lavish amount of money - decorated it in a grand style and were a great boon to the local economy through its creation. They lived many happy years there, until 1806, when their lives were invaded by Aaron Burr. His plot to create a new country in the West was treasonous, and President Thomas Jefferson had both men arrested. Margaret and her two children also left the island and went to New Orleans, where they met back up with Harman when he was released from jail.

Financially ruined, the Blennerhassetts never returned to their home, which was seized by the sheriff of Wood County, VA (now West Virginia) and all its contents auctioned off to pay the family's debts. This auction proved a boon for later historians and archaelogists, as the furniture, books, and family belongings survived the fire that destroyed the mansion in 1811.

Sadly, Harman and Margaret moved back to Ireland and lived with his sister in poverty until Harman's death 1831 on the Isle of Guernsey. Margaret moved to New York City where she lived with her son until her death in 1842 during a cholera outbreak in the city. She had asked the US Government for retribution for the loss of her house and land. It was granted, but Margaret died before receiving any compensation.

Margaret and her son Harman Jr are today buried on the island behind the mansion. They were moved there from NYC following the house's restoration. And on cool, clear nights they say Margaret still roams the island she loved so dearly...

This is the left wing of the house - it contains the kitchen, which is outfitted with period antiques. Some of them, like the family's sugar chest, are from the Blennerhassett family.

The middle of the mansion contains three parlors, the entrance foyer, and the dining room on the first floor. The second floor contains the nursery, the library, the ballroom/game room, and the bedrooms. All are outfitted with period furniture, paintings, and books - many belonged to the Blennerhassett family.

This is the right wing of the mansion, which contained Harman's library of scientific and medical tomes as well as other books and instruments. It also housed the wine cellar in the basement. It was in this area that the fire started in 1811, when hemp that was stored there caught fire and spread to the rest of the house. It was not until 1984 that the foundation of the house was found again, since flooding along the Ohio River buried the ruins in mud and debris for many years. After reconstruction, the house is now open for tours and is really inexpensive. A boat ride to the island is only $8, and the house tour is even less. This has to be one of the best values in the entire state!

There are also several other things to see in Parkersburg, one of my favorites being the Blennerhassett Museum that houses other Blennerhassett antiques, a HUGE collection of WV Native American relics, and WV historical items. This is part of the Stahl collection of Native American items in the museum's basement. It's a copper necklace that was found on Blennerhassett Island.

The museum also has a large collection of oil paintings and portraits of famous WV people, authors, and notables. The painting below is of Margaret Blennerhassett herself - not only was she Harman's wife, she is also West Virginia's first published poet. Her poetry is truly West Virginian in nature, and speaks fondly of the island and the area that she so loved along the Ohio. It is still in print, so I suggest it to anyone who is in need of a WV literary fix.

The book below allegedly belonged to Margaret Blennerhassett, and is written in her own hand on birch bark. This book only measures about three inches square, but it was to me the most impressive item in the entire museum. It contains two of her poems.

There is a large selection of furniture in the museum, as well as antique wedding gowns, porcelain dolls, antique vehicles, a moonshine still, and tons of riverboat memorabilia. By far one of the more impressive museums in West Virginia. It also houses a few ghosts, I'm told.

This is the left of the Victorian parlor display.

This is the middle of the Victorian parlor display.

This is the right of the Victorian parlor display.

Other museums in town showcase other things - there is an Oil and Gas Museum just down the street from this one, which I also visited. It is much more rustic in nature, but wildcatting for oil wasn't a pretty process. There is also the Trans-Allegheny Bookstore, which is a stop all its own.

I greatly recommend a trip to Parkersburg and to Blennerhassett Island State Park. If you haven't been, then you don't know what fun you are missing!