‘Jewel in the river’

‘Jewel in the river’

Blennerhassett Manor and Museum

Story and photos by Jane Beathard

Long before he was a main character in the musical “Hamilton,” Aaron Burr was a real-life dreamer, schemer and adventurer on the Ohio frontier.

He was a hero of the Revolutionary War, a Founding Father and Thomas Jefferson’s first vice president.

Burr was politically ambitious. And that ambition eventually led him to be accused of betraying the very country he helped establish.

That alleged betrayal took form on an Ohio River island in what was then Virginia’s portion of the river (there was no “West” Virginia before the Civil War). Burr’s partners in crime were Irish immigrants named Blennerhassett.

Who were the Blennerhassetts?

Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett were wealthy, educated Irish expatriates who were forced to flee their native land in 1796 on the eve of a revolt against English rule. Moreover, Harman was Margaret’s much-older uncle and their union was frowned upon by family.

They sold their grand estate in County Kerry with more than 700 acres of land to finance relocation to America where they hoped to start a new life free of oppression on the edge of civilization.

They visited Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York City where they likely had a brief encounter with George Washington.

With their many valuable possessions, hundreds of books, and a contingent of servants and slaves in tow, they traveled via wagon over the Appalachian Mountains to the burgeoning village of Pittsburgh — then gateway to the American West.

They took a flatboat down the Ohio River and just past the enclave of Marietta in Ohio Territory they saw an island — one of the largest in the river.

“They fell in love with it,” said Miles Evenson, superintendent of the West Virginia state historical park that now occupies much of the island.

And because the island was on the Virginia side of the river and not the Ohio side, the Blennerhassetts could keep their slaves.

They bought the upper part of the 4-mile-long island from a prominent Marietta businessman. And in 1798, they began construction of a Palladian-style manor house that resembled Washington’s Mount Vernon.

Hostilities with the local American Indians had only recently subsided. In fact, the Delaware Chief Nemacolin still lived on the island. So, Harman and Margaret took up residence in a secured block house on the island for two years while their manor went up.

Building materials came by flatboat from Pittsburgh and beyond. By 1800, the 12-room main house and outlying study and summer kitchen were ready for occupancy.

“It was like a jewel in the river,” Evenson said of the manor.

Margaret wrote poetry and hosted lavish parties in the formal dining room. Harman held forth in his study, read law and dabbled in astronomy.

They entertained many prominent figures of the day, including Kentucky politician Henry Clay and explorer George Rogers Clark. Davey Crockett and Sam Houston passed by.

And in 1805, Aaron Burr stopped to visit.

Disgrace and accusations of treason

Burr’s reputation was in tatters after killing Alexander Hamilton in an illegal duel in 1804. He had made an enemy of Jefferson, and his political career was over.

As a result, Burr turned his eyes toward the Southwest — and in particular toward Texas — which was then part of Mexico.

“He wanted to turn Texas into his own country where he would be president,” Evenson said.

But Burr needed financing — the kind of money the Blennerhassetts could provide.

Harman agreed to support the project and throughout 1805-‘06 Burr came and went on the island, supervising construction of a fleet of flatboats that would carry the invaders south.

Friends of Jefferson’s who lived in the area got wind of the plot and reported details (although embellished) to the president.

Jefferson had both Burr and Harman arrested for treason and jailed at Richmond. The Wood County (Virginia) Militia ransacked the manor house and held Margaret hostage.

She eventually escaped with two of her children and fled south to Mississippi Territory where she started life over on a 1,000-acre cotton plantation.

“She never saw her island again,” Evenson said.

Blennerhassetts go broke

Burr’s treason trial ended in acquittal and both he and Harman were eventually released from custody.

Harman joined Margaret in Mississippi where their fortunes again turned sour. A series of cotton crop failures left them in dire financial straits and they lost their plantation to back taxes.

Desperate, they traveled to Canada where Harman had been promised a judgeship by an old friend. But the friend died before they reached Montreal and the position never materialized.

Their money exhausted, the Blennerhassetts went home and moved in with relatives.

Harman died on the Isle of Guernsey in 1831. Margaret returned to New York City and moved in with her son, Harman Jr., a sometime actor and full-time alcoholic. She died penniless in 1842.

The grand manor house on Blennerhassett Island fell into disrepair. It burned to the ground in 1811 after local farmers began storing industrial hemp in its vacant rooms.

History resurrected

Realizing the historical significance of the island, West Virginia began the Blennerhassett Island Project in 1979, Evenson said.

Re-construction of the grand manor house began in 1984. Its design was based on records and drawings and its foundation was laid directly over that of Margaret and Harman’s residence — although about 8 feet higher to avoid Ohio River flooding.

Finished in 1990, the manor opened for public tours in 1992. It was furnished with authentic period pieces, including some that actually belonged to the Blennerhassetts.

“They were traced via auction receipts,” Evenson said.

Although the island belongs to the DuPont corporation on today, most of it was designated a state park in 1989 via a lease agreement.

In 1996, the bodies of both Margaret and Harman, Jr. were exhumed in New York and re-buried just behind the study wing of the manor house.

Margaret had at last come home to the island she loved.

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PLANNING A VISIT

Access from Parkersburg, W.V.

From May to late October, visitors catch the Island Belle paddlewheeler at Point Park in Parkersburg for a 20-minute ride to the island’s main dock.

A $25 combination ticket buys a round trip on the boat, as well as a horse-drawn wagon ride around the island and a tour of the manor house. Volunteers in colonial dress host the tours and provide details of the Blennerhassetts’ day-to-day lives on the island.

There’s also a primitive group campground, picnic area, gift shop, snack bar and bike rental on the island. Leashed dogs are welcome, Evenson said.

In winter, when the island is often iced in, activity centers around the Blennerhassett Museum in Parkersburg.

The museum’s three floors showcase much of the Ohio River’s history, as well as the history of area Indian tribes.

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Island by candlelight

Blennerhassett Manor and Museum host a variety of special events, including lectures, concerts, dinner cruises and quilt shows.

“The Mansion By Candlelight is the most popular,” said Miles Evenson, superintendent of Blennerhassett Island State Historical Park.

Held two weekends in October (Oct. 12-13 and 20-21 this year), hundreds of candles light the way from the Island Belle’s landing to the manor house. Electricity is banished as the entire house and park are transformed into a flame-lit 18th century world.

“It’s as if the Blennerhassetts are throwing a party,” Evenson added.

Reservations are required for Mansion By Candlelight. Call 304-420-4800 for information.

Salt Magazine