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Island has a rich history of love, tragedy

Blennerhassett State Park is a hidden treasure

SHARE Island has a rich history of love, tragedy

PARKERSBURG, W.Va. — Kim and Nathan Heckathorn are tourists who prefer to wander, choosing random two-lane roads and driving with no particular destination.

They hope for something scenic, historic, entertaining and affordable.

About 300 miles southeast of their home in Toledo, Ohio, they found a 500-acre island in the Ohio River that offered all of that. With its romantic and tragic history, they say, Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park is a day-tripper's dream.

"This must be a hidden treasure for the state, really, because we've been to West Virginia numerous times and we've never heard of it," Kim Heckathorn says. "It's just fantastic."

In many ways, Blennerhassett Island is like any other state park. But it also has a reconstructed 19th-century mansion with guides who don period costumes to tell the tale of Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett, wealthy Irish aristocrats who loved, lived lavishly, then lost it all.

The day before the Heckathorns took the 20-minute sternwheeler ride to the island, they visited a downtown museum that holds the remains of the Blennerhassett fortune: Poems jotted in a book smaller than the palm of a hand. Some china. A pocketbook. A silver baby cup. Tiny, hand-painted family portraits. Stones from the mansion gate.

"It's what is left after such a prosperous and highfalutin life," Kim Heckathorn says. "There's so little left."

The Blennerhassetts fled Ireland in the 1790s because their family frowned on their marriage. Harman was also Margaret's uncle.

The couple began crossing the Appalachians in 1796, searching for a place to build a home. They spent the winter in Pittsburgh and resumed their journey the following summer.

From a bluff in Ohio, they spotted what was then called Belpre Island. The Blennerhassetts bought it, then spent 2 1/2 years building a 7,000-square-foot mansion, their own version of paradise.

"Can you imagine, in 1800, coming down the river on a flatboat and then all of a sudden you see this stark white mansion on an island in the river?" says park superintendent Donna Smith. "Two hundred years ago, everyone was living in one-story log houses, and here are these rich people."

The home was built in the Palladian style, with porticos linking the main structure to the kitchen on one side and Harman's study on the other. Records show he stocked it with $1,200 worth of books, equivalent to $40,000 worth today.

The rooms had Oriental carpets, alabaster lamps on silver chains, marble fireplaces and gold clocks. Margaret had a two-acre flower garden, and the estate was said to be one of the most elegant in what was then Virginia.

The Blennerhassetts were famous for their parties, reportedly attracting guests such as Gen. James Wilkinson, then commanding general of the U.S. Army, and Charles X, the future king of France.

But their most infamous guest, former Vice President Aaron Burr, led to their downfall. Burr went to Blennerhassett in 1805, seeking money for an apparent invasion of Mexico. He used the island to recruit soldiers for his army — until arrest warrants were issued, charging Burr and Blennerhassett with treason.

The men fled, and Margaret was held prisoner with her children until they, too, were forced off the island.

Burr, who served 57 days in jail, was tried and acquitted. Harman Blennerhassett was then released and later rejoined his family in Mississippi.

In 1811, though, their island home burned to the ground, and by the 1830s, they'd moved on to England.

For more than a century, the mansion was forgotten, Smith said. Then, in 1973, archaeologists discovered the foundation.

Smith, who has overseen the park for seven years and lives in a historic log cabin, said reconstruction cost nearly $1 million. The builders guessed at the floor plan from the foundation and what few written descriptions they had.

They used gold paint instead of gold leaf for the trim in the foyer. They lined one room in black walnut and painted another a rich red.

The nonprofit Friends of Blennerhassett help furnish the house, using some of the Blennerhassetts' original, rescued items. Most were auctioned off and ended up in private hands, while others have been preserved and donated.

In 1991, the mansion opened to visitors.

Today, the island is owned by DuPont Washington Works. The state leases the land for the park, which draws about 50,000 people a year.

That's down from about 55,000 just three years ago.

Smith doesn't know what's behind the decline but says it's tough for Blennerhassett to compete with large state parks that offer lodges, golf courses and other activities.

The park is offering senior citizen discounts on Wednesdays and family discounts on certain Saturdays to try to boost visitation. It's an ideal destination for those who enjoy storytelling and the outdoors, Smith says.

"For the mid-Ohio Valley, it's just part of history," she says. "If they love history, they should come."