Blennerhassett State Park is a trip back in time

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replica of Harman Blennerhassett's estate
A replica of Harman Blennerhassett's estate, in Parkersburg, West Virginia, offers carriage rides and guided tours of the mansion. (Julie Geiss photo)

Nestled in the Appalachian foothills, where the Little Kanawha River and the Ohio River join together, is the city of Parkersburg, West Virginia. I had driven by multiple times before I finally decided to stop and explore. I had heard about sternwheeler rides and Blennerhassett State Park. I knew I wouldn’t regret getting off the freeway for a few hours. 

After purchasing tickets, the gentleman in the ticket booth surprised my daughter by saying, “Go straight three blocks and then walk through the hole in the wall.” I was puzzled by his words too, but I decided to blindly follow his directives. My daughter was skeptical. The look on her face was priceless. 

She interrogated me, “A hole in the wall? Why is there a hole in the wall? Why didn’t you ask questions?” It seemed more adventurous to find out the answers through experience than by explanation. We walked the three blocks, noticing pigeons making their home under the bridge. 

As we drew nearer to our destination, we could clearly see that the wall was a floodwall constructed along the Ohio River. The city of Parkersburg survived epic flooding in 1884, 1913 and 1937. During the years 1946-1950, the Army Corps of Engineers constructed a 2-mile concrete wall. An earth levee and a diversion channel were also created at the same time. 

The Parkersburg floodwall was one of many projects completed by the Corps to prevent flooding in the Ohio Valley and Appalachian area. After walking through the hole in the wall, we could see the river stretching before us. A historic sternwheeler was gently bobbing on the water, waiting for the last passengers to board. 

Sternwheeler

Sternwheelers
Sternwheelers were an important type of transportation in the 19th century. (Julie Geiss photo)

Sternwheelers were a vital means of transportation in the 19th century. Supplies for townspeople and the mail made their way along the river on a sternwheeler. Broken down into parts, the name explains itself. The stern is the back of the boat. These boats have a paddle wheel on the stern to propel them up and down the river. 

Historically, the boats used steam for power to chug their heavy loads up and down the river. Now motors have replaced the need for steam. We enjoyed the leisurely trip to Blennerhassett Island. Our 20-minute trip passed quickly as we watched for wildlife and admired the houses on both sides of the river. When we stepped off the sternwheeler, we drifted further back in time. 

The island had been home to indigenous people, including some members of the Delaware nation, long before the first European settlers. The island is rumored to be owned by George Washington, but that fact has not been proven. The ownership passed through several hands before being purchased by Harman Blennerhassett, a wealthy Irish aristocrat. 

Blennerhassett

Harman Blennerhassett had an exorbitant lifestyle and a flair for drama. He previously inherited and resided at Conway Castle in Ireland. He fled his homeland in 1796 because of political issues and to escape the scandal of marrying his niece. He was a brilliant man with a lot of money but lacked wisdom. 

He was extremely gullible with his money, as evidenced by buying an island on the Ohio River prone to flooding. He purchased 170 acres for $4,500 in 1798. He paid exponentially more than the land was worth at the time. Together with his wife, he had a grand estate built on the island. It was reminiscent of southern plantations, including slave ownership. 

Native trees including elms, cottonwoods and sycamores were cut down so the enormous mansion could be seen at a glance from the river. Like a magnet to political drama and scandal, Harman Blennerhassett’s downfall began when he developed a friendship with Aaron Burr. The Blennerhassett estate supposedly became the headquarters for Aaron Burr’s military expedition. 

At the heart of the Burr Conspiracy was a plot to create a new country independent of the young United States. Harman Blennerhassett’s lack of sense but available funding was a bad combination. His involvement with Burr led to him being arrested twice and instigated his financial downfall. His exquisite estate was abandoned after his arrest and later burned to the ground in 1811. 

Replica

Work began in 1973 by the state of West Virginia to unearth the foundation and build a replica. In 1991, the new estate was opened to the public. About 40,000 visitors a year now make their way to the island by sternwheeler. The experience is incredible. 

My daughter and I agreed that we felt like we were on a movie set. Large black walnut trees planted in rows stretched toward the sky. Everything was a lush green except for the bright alabaster-white mansion. Symmetrical in nature, the main house has porticos on both sides leading to matching smaller structures. 

In addition to guided tours of the mansion, visitors can purchase tickets for horse-drawn carriage rides. As we stood under one of the porticos, we could hear the clip-clop of horses passing by on the trails. 

It was hard to believe we were on an island on the Ohio River. The tumultuous history has been preserved for future generations to learn from past mistakes. More information about visiting Blennerhassett Island can be found online at wvstateparks.com/park/blennerhassett-island-historical-state-park.

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Julie Geiss lives with her husband and four children in Unity Township, Ohio. Faith and family are first in her life, but she also loves hiking, biking and camping. You can contact Julie at juliegeiss1414@gmail.com.

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