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PROFILE: Blennerhassett offers window into the past

PARKERSBURG, W.Va. — In the Ohio River, slightly west of Parkersburg, W.Va., is a land that, in many ways, time forgot. Or maybe, time has preserved as a window to not only this region’s wild and wonderful past but our nation’s early days as well.

With its pristine woodlands and riverfront, Blennerhassett Island is a gem of natural beauty. Standing silently among its tall trees is a replica of a mansion that in its short span hosted political intrigue, opulent living and illustrious visits from national, and even international, notables.

Two hours and 15 minutes from Ironton, Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park is one of the true gems in the crown of West Virginia.

Who was Blennerhassett?

Harman Blennerhassett was born in 1764 to an aristocratic Irish family. According to a West Virginia Historical Quarterly article titled, “A Chronicle of the Life of Harman Blennerhassett” dated January 1999, written by Michael Burke, “At the time of his birth, the family was not residing at “Castle Conway,” as the Blennerhassett estate was known, but rather at the English village, Hambledon, in County Hampshire.

“The Blennerhassetts were away from Ireland to avoid the violent raids on prominent Irish landlords by a group of peasant outlaws known as the ‘Whiteboys.’”

Early on, political turmoil seemed to attract him.

“He was in a secret organization that plotted Irish independence,” Blennerhassett Regional History Museum Director Ray Swick explained.

If Blennerhassett is an exciting subject, Swick is a preeminent and extraordinarily knowledgeable teacher. He has written books and articles on the subject and has been the Blennerhassett Island Regional History Museum’s director — its only director — since it opened in April 1988.

More than a museum overseer, Swick is a passionate historian, community relations expert and stickler for what is true to the mansion, true to history and true to the people who lived there.

Harman Blennerhassett eventually sold his family estate and used the proceeds to finance his life in the United States, bringing with him a young wife.

Martha Agnew Blennerhassett was born in England in 1771 and theirs was a marriage that perhaps caused as much controversy as some of Blennerhassett’s political views. What was the problem?

“She was his niece,” Swick explained.

The couple first settled in New York and then Pennsylvania before making their way to the Ohio Valley. Their first home in this region was Marietta. And then they saw the island. They settled there in 1798.

The Blennerhassetts were well educated, talented and interested in any number of subjects, as their home could attest.

Harman Blennerhassett had studied law when he was in England. In the New World, he had new pursuits.

“He studied medicine,” Swick said. The mansion boasted a private study. “His library was one of the largest private libraries in the Ohio Valley.”

At a time when education, the fine arts and social status meant something, they would have been considered the beautiful people of their day. He played music, she wrote poetry. Cared for by servants and comfortable in their impressive home, life must have seemed idyllic — for a while.

If Blennerhassett aimed to be important, he was successful: Among his guests was Charles X of France. In one room of the mansion, over the fireplace, hangs a painting of Charles X’s mistress, the Duchess of Cleveland.

And he became acquainted with a man who would lead to his demise: Aaron Burr, the former vice-president under Thomas Jefferson who shot and killed Alexander Hamilton is a duel in 1804.

It was this relationship with Burr that would lead to the end of Blennerhassett’s idyllic island existence.

In 1806 Burr and Blennerhassett became entangled in a mysterious military enterprise. Jefferson accused both men of plotting treason in attempting to establish an empire in the Southwest. Blennerhassett was captured and put into the Virginia State Penitentiary.

Although Burr was tried and acquitted and Blennerhassett released from prison, the lives of both men were ruined. Most historians now agree that Burr had set his sights on northern Mexico for his dominion, today’s state of Texas and was not trying to overthrow the U.S. government or seize U.S. lands.

The island

The island is 500 acres, one of the largest in the Ohio River. These days, visitors take a 20-minute sternwheeler ride that for now begins at the Belpre riverfront while the Parkersburg riverfront undergoes a facelift.

According to information from the Blennerhassett Island Web site, the island was home to Native American tribes until white settlers began coming into the Ohio Valley in the 1780s. During the 1760s, the famous Delaware Indian, Nemacolin, made the island his home.

The mansion

The original mansion was built in 1800 in the Palladian style. It contained 7,000 square feet of floor spa space. According to the Web site, the Blennerhassett’s furnished it with items purchased in London and Baltimore, oriental carpets, oil paintings, and porcelain made in Paris.

The hardware on some of the interior doors was made of silver. Alabaster lamps were suspended from the ceilings by silver chains.

A 2-1/3 acre flower garden and two huge lawns surrounded the house.

On one side of the main part of the mansion was the summer kitchen; on the other side was Harman Blennerhassett’s private study.

In the summer kitchen is a stone sink that dates back to 1796. There is also a clock that is identical to the one on display at Wakefield, the birthplace of George Washington.

The mansion accidentally burned to the ground in 1811.

Talk of rebuilding the mansion continued for almost a century before the state of West Virginia made an effort to translate dreams into reality.

“They were saying in the 1890s it needed to be rebuilt,” Swick said. It took the bicentennial fever of the 1970s to get a professional architect here.” That was when the mansion’s foundation was re-discovered. Builders used accounts of the mansion saved over the years to rebuild to exact detail.

Actual construction of the replica of the mansion began in 1984. The mansion opened its doors to the public for the first time July 4, 1991.

Swick said the phoenix is the unofficial symbol of the mansion and rightly so: According to mythology, the phoenix rises from the ashes, reborn, renewed. So it is for the mansion.

Once turned to ashes by fire, it presides again over the island, a spectacular and awe-inspiring symbol of the region’s heritage.

A peek inside

The entry hall is mint green — at the time the original mansion was built, rooms were generally decorated in bright colors. In both the entry hall and in the study are painted floor cloths, the precursor to linoleum. They are made of canvas.

Paintings of the Blennerhassetts are probably the first things visitors will see once inside. They hang above the entry hall fireplace.

The dining room is a cross between raspberry sherbet and salmon.

It was designed in the Adams style that was popular then — the table is the focal point of the room and there is no chandelier above it, so as not to detract from the table. The room is lit with wall sconces. The table can seat 12.

The drawing room has polished black walnut woodwork.

Upstairs is the upper drawing room where the Blennerhassetts entertained before a large cheerful fireplace.

“This is where they would have danced or played cards,” Swick said. “We know more about the upper drawing room than any other.”

In the blue and white Blennerhassett bedroom are a Hepplewhite bow front dresser and a table that are original to the house. The bed is a Samuel McIntyre creation made before 1711. There is also a 200-year-old looking glass

Over the years Swick and others have managed to procure furnishings that were original to the mansion and return them to their rightful place on the island.

“Much of what they (the Blennerhassetts) had that she didn’t take with her was seized by the Wood County courts and sold at a fraction of what they were worth to help pay off debts,” Swick said.

A number of Blennerhassett furnishings were purchased by local families and stayed in the area; other items had to be tracked down. One settee original to the house is now part of the mansion’s furnishings.

Other historic pieces have been added to the home as well. One chest in the nursery is said to have belonged to Rufus Putnam, who founded the city of Marietta.

Visitors

It once drew kings and politicians. It now draws school kids, historians and those who want to see for themselves what life was like before the era of computers and telephones and television. An estimated 30,000 people visit the island every year. One of the people making a sojourn to the island in October was Don Osborne of Cincinnati, who came with his wife, Charlotte.

“We had heard about it and have never been able to come until now,” Osborne explained. “This was one of the things on our list we wanted to do. We’re both retired now and we’re traveling.”

About the time the Osborne’s were leaving the island, two vanloads of visitors from the Guernsey County Senior Center were taking their place on the ferry, more people wanting to spend a crisp fall day in time travel.

The mystique

What is it about Blennerhassett Island and its former inhabitants that so attracts?

“It’s the uniqueness of the story,” Swick explained. “It has political and social uniqueness. Aaron Burr supplied the political and the Blennerhassetts, but building this house and their personal story, gave the island its social significance.”