Ohio River island between Ohio, West Virginia rich in history
We took a two-day trip to Blennerhassett Island State Historical Park last week.
It is on the Ohio River just south of Marietta. Although the 4-mile-long island is just a stone’s throw from Belpre, it actually lies in West Virginia’s portion of the river and is accessible from Parkersburg via the Island Belle paddlewheeler between May and October.
With all the hub-bub over “Hamilton,” there’s renewed interest in Aaron Burr, a main character in the musical, who met his Waterloo (so to speak) on the island in 1806.
In “Hamilton,” we see Burr as an ambitious politician who schmoozes his way without taking a stand on any issue of the day. At the end of the show, he is disgraced after killing Alexander Hamilton in an illegal duel.
Although he became Thomas Jefferson’s first vice-president, Burr’s reputation never recovered and his political career came to a crashing end. So, he plotted to invade Texas (then part of Mexico) and set himself up as president of his own country.
The plan needed money and that’s where Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett and their beautiful island came in.
They were wealthy Irish immigrants who bought the upper part of the island in 1798, built a 14-room Palladian -style mansion on it and became the social “butterflies” of the Ohio-Virginia frontier.
The Blennerhassetts entertained lots of prominent people of the era, including Burr. They agreed to finance Burr’s Texas invasion scheme in 1805.
But neighbors informed Jefferson of the plot and Harman Blennerhassett and Burr were arrested for treason. Burr was acquitted at trial and both men were eventually released.
The island mansion fell into disrepair and burned down in 1811. The Blennerhassetts had relocated to a Mississippi cotton plantation by that time and never saw their home again. Their fortunes turned sour and they lost all their money. They returned to England where Harman died in 1831. Margaret returned to New York City where she died penniless in 1842.
Movers and shakers in West Virginia realized the historic value of the island in the 1980s. And although the DuPont Corp. now owns it, the state leased 500 acres for a state park in 1989.
The mansion was rebuilt on the site of the original Blennerhassetts manor in the late 1980 and early 1990s. It opened for public tours in 1992.
In addition to the manor, the park is home to a primitive group campground, snack bar, gift shop and bike rental. Leashed dogs are welcome, according to superintendent Miles Evenson.
Volunteers and staff in period dress guide visitors through the mansion from May to October. In the winter, activities move onshore to the Blennerhassett Museum in Parkersburg. The museum is three floors of Ohio River history, as well as artifacts from Indian tribes that once inhabited the area.
We spent a night in the Blennerhassett Hotel in Parkersburg. It is a lovely, old restored building with a very good dining room, quaint bar and coffee shop. There’s no pool or hot tub, so kids would have little to do there. I recommend it for adults, though.
In all, a day at Blennerhassett Island is well worth the trip – especially for anyone interested in U.S. and Ohio history, and for anyone who has seen “Hamilton” and wonders what happened to Aaron Burr.