On a West Virginia Isle, the Mystery of It All
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Peacefulness and isolation: These are the qualities that make islands so appealing. Surrounded by water, they fulfill our desire for separation from the day-to-day routine.
But isolated as they are, islands are also perfect settings for mystery. And mystery was on my mind recently as our stern-wheeler paddled toward Blennerhassett Island, a leafy spit of land picturesquely nestled in the Ohio River just below Parkersburg, W.Va. What, I wondered, was wealthy Irish aristocrat Harman Blennerhassett thinking when, in 1805, he agreed to house a potentially treasonous military encampment on the grounds of his estate on this island?
In the first years of the 19th century, Aaron Burr, the former vice president who dreamed of greatness, convinced Blennerhassett to join him in an ambitious plot, the exact details of which remain open to speculation. Was Burr trying to detach the western states and the Louisiana Territory from the Union and make himself ruler of a new empire? Or did President Thomas Jefferson smear Burr -- and Blennerhassett along with him -- with trumped-up charges of treason in order to destroy any possibility of Burr's political revival?
I put aside wondering about these conniving plans when I stepped inside the gorgeously reconstructed mansion on the island, now Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park. The original lavish dwelling was ransacked by Virginia militia after the so-called Burr conspiracy collapsed in 1806 and then burned to the ground in 1811, but its foundations were discovered in 1973. Through historical and architectural research, the mansion has been re-created with period accuracy and contains some pieces of furniture that actually belonged to the Blennerhassetts. If House Beautiful magazine had existed in 1805, I'm sure it would have featured a glossy spread of the stately residence's interior.
A tour of the buildings, conducted by costumed docents, provides a sparkling education in early-19th-century cooking and decorating. In the kitchen are wonderfully ingenious appliances, such as a little bread-toasting contraption that sits on the floor in front of a fireplace. Walking up the graceful curved staircase, you can almost hear Blennerhassett's wife, Margaret, complain, "Harman, dear, I don't like this Burr guy you're spending time with." Ultimately, both men spent months in prison, while poor Margaret, a poet and Shakespeare scholar, fled to Mississippi. The couple never rose out of poverty for the rest of their lives.
Beyond the mansion, the island offers horse-drawn wagon rides and rents out bicycles for more island exploration. As I pedaled along a shady path, I went past dozens of nesting ducks and then stopped to get a closer look at the fenced-off, slightly crumbling Neale House, a Federal-style brick building constructed in 1833. Walt Whitman stayed there in 1849 on a visit to the then-notorious island while he was making his way from Brooklyn, N.Y., to a newspaper job in New Orleans. While there, he wrote a poem about the island called "Isle of La Belle Riviere," which mentions "that traitor."
Open May through October, the state park features several special events in late summer and early fall, such as Thursday brunches led by a Margaret Blennerhassett impersonator and "Mansion by Candlelight" harvest dinners and tours. Otherwise, a snack stand offers the only food available on the island. There are no overnight accommodations, so if you visit, you'll have to stay in Parkersburg, a once oil-rich town with its own interesting sights.
The Blennerhassett Museum of Regional History in downtown Parkersburg devotes a section to the puzzling tale of its namesake family and also has exhibits covering the area's general history, ranging from Native American artifacts to Victorian-era fashions and curiosities. I confess that I spent the most time gawking at the cases holding 19th-century mourning accessories -- lockets, pendants, picture frames -- woven from deceased loved ones' hair. They were astonishingly intricate and, of course, more than a little creepy.
The town's Julia-Ann Square is the largest historic district in West Virginia, with 126 properties built in a wide array of architectural styles. At the neighborhood's main entrance, at Ninth and Juliana streets, you'll find a box from which you can grab a 40-page walking-tour brochure. The pamphlet contains detailed information on dozens of the houses, including architectural style, biographical notes on the owners (one woman was "reputed to have been Jack London's mistress"; one man was business manager for Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus) and descriptions of interiors that let you imagine "a sculptured Italian marble fireplace and floor-to-ceiling windows."
The Oil and Gas Museum houses oil-related machinery and memorabilia in an old red-brick hardware wholesaler building. Some of the artifacts are historically fascinating, but others -- oil well photographs, early kerosene lamps, model trains -- could be knickknacks from your grandmother's attic. There is, nonetheless, an enormous amount of history to be uncovered here. For example, oil played a part in West Virginia's becoming a state during the Civil War: Confederate soldiers alienated the western Virginia counties' population by burning one of the area's large oil fields because it supplied Union troops.
The jewel of downtown Parkersburg is the historic Blennerhassett Hotel, a gorgeous 1889 example of Queen Anne architecture dripping with Old World elegance. The hotel's large patio is a perfect spot to sip a cocktail or have dinner.
As I sat there with a glass of wine a few hours after my visit to the island, I thought about how the curious Blennerhassett saga had left its mark on Parkersburg and the surrounding area, where the Irishman's name marks a number of sites. It seemed unfortunate that Harman's scheme had cost his family its secluded, verdant paradise. Why did he take such a risk? Was it simply a case of an eccentric aristocrat getting swept up in political ambition? Well, who knows, I thought. It's a mystery.
Theresa Everline is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.