West Virginia Hills by Jeff Ellis

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Blennerhassett Island, Parkersburg

     Yesterday John and I made a trip to Parkersburg to visit Blennerhassett Island, a West Virginia historical state park. Blennerhassett Island, located on the Ohio River, has a rich history that spans from Ice Age hunters 9,000 years ago to Native American tribes who lived on the island almost continuously until white settlers began to arrive in great numbers into the Ohio Valley in the 1780s. While I vaguely remember being taught about the various Indian settlements along the Ohio River in my 5th grade West Virginia History class, I more readily remember the story about Aaron Burr and his military conspiracy. In 1798, Harman Blennerhassett, a wealthy Irish aristocrat, settled on the island and built a magnificent mansion. Unfortunately, in 1806 he became mixed up in an elaborate scheme with Aaron Burr (who had dueled with Alexander Hamilton in 1804), who wanted to conquer part of Texas territory, along with northern Mexico (which was Spanish territory), in order to create a new empire which he would rule. President Thomas Jefferson accused Burr (a former U.S. Vice President who had tied with Jefferson in the presidential elections, and with whom he was bitter enemies) and the other men of committing treason.  Blennerhassett fled the island, but was captured and put in a Virginia state prison, while Burr was arrested in Kentucky, then tried and acquitted with help from his young attorney, Henry Clay, and a ruling made by Chief Justice John Marshall that declared Burr protected by the 1st Amendment which gave him the right to voice public opposition to the government. The trial went to a jury, but based on Marshall's ruling the jury had no choice but to find Burr not guilty as there was no proof of assembling men for treasonable purposes. However, both men's lives were ruined. Burr, whose name was forever marred, went back to England, while Harman Blennerhassett, who was released from prison after Burr was acquitted, moved down south and then eventually back to Ireland where he died. After Blennerhassett was put in prison, Virginia militiamen had ransacked his island estate and burnt down Blennerhassett's mansion, the foundation of which was rediscovered by archaeologists in 1973 (who worked almost 2 decades digging on Blennerhassett island), and through careful historical and architectural research, was recreated. Work on its interior furnishings are still  in progress, but visitors may take guided tours of the mansion by period costumed volunteers, or docents, and may also visit the Blennerhassett Museum of Regional History (located in downtown Parkersburg on 2nd and Juliana Streets) where they may trace the history of the Ohio Valley, the city of Parkersburg, and the islands through exhibits of 18th, 19th, and 20th century relics.
     Adding to the beauty of the island are the thick hardwood groves, a walnut plantation, and a great Tulip Poplar (the 2nd largest east of the Mississippi) which all offer welcomed shade, the long beaches that encircle the island, and the wide open fields that provide a habitat for white-tailed deer, water fowl, and other birds. Blennerhassett Island also has an inlet cove which was used in frontier times by canoes and smaller riverboats to access the island, which in about 1840 began to silt in and by 1900 had become dry land. And to top it all off, to get to the island today visitors must take a 19th century-style sternwheeler, run by Captain Harry Batten, who designed and commissioned the boat to be built for himself back in 1994 (which he named the Jewell City). (Now I'm not altogether certain that I have the following information straight, so if you decide to visit Blennerhassett Island, you might ask him yourself to clarify it for you when you see him.) What is interesting is that he sold the sternwheeler to a man in Illinois (and somewhere in this whole story he worked for Rubles, who made a bid on the boat and lost either before or after the man in Illinois), who then eventually sold it back to the state of West Virginia, and Captain Batten, who has been operating sternwheelers on the Ohio River for 26 years, is now back home on his own sternwheeler, which in 2009 was renamed the Island Belle (so named by a class of elementary school kids who won a competition with other classes from other area schools), taking almost 32,000 passengers a year back and forth to the island from May 1st through October each year. (Whew!) In any case, the man is extremely friendly, and will let passengers making the ride across visit him in the pilot's house and steer the boat for a minute or two! When John and I were headed over, he invited a group of 7th - 11th graders who were visiting the island from Mid-Valley Christian School in Middleport, Ohio to go in one by one and get their pictures taken with him.

     Blennerhassett Island hosts several special events throughout the season, and today John and I went over to experience the "Rendezvous on the River," a four-day event which started in 1989, where muzzleloaders and mountain men gather to recreate 18th and early 19th century frontier life with authentic camps, demonstrations, and period costumes. John was extremely excited about visiting this recreated event, as he has always wished that he could have lived back in those days, often making mention of that fact whenever he recollects some backwoods outing he went on during his younger days. And I have no doubt that he could, indeed, have been a lone mountain man (but thank god he's not!). We also met a couple on the boat ride over, Art and Ann Linger, who for the same reason as us, were making their first trip ever to Blennerhassett Island in their 37 years as Parkersburg residents. Interestingly, this event was being sponsored by the West Virginia Muzzleloaders Association, a group of muzzleloader shooters, builders, hunters, and history enthusiasts, who in 1977 formally organized in order to promote and preserve the traditional style of muzzleloader shooting. And thanks to this group's active involvement in legislative matters and the Department of Natural Resources policy matters, they have worked to improve conditions for the sportsmen and women of WV, and have secured a muzzleloader deer hunting season in West Virginia! We got to meet several of these individuals (many of whom have been doing this for 20+ years) who generously gave of their time during the afternoon to talk with us about what they do, and to show us their pre-1840s camps, plus let us take a peek inside their tents (all of this where they are living, cooking, and sleeping for the 4 days).
Among the people we met were Linda Reed, and the 1830s mountain man, Raymond "Ugly" Leeper (who explained to us the period costuming and camps), both from Grafton, WV; Monte Pearson (a very interesting guy dressed in 1700s frontier costuming who's 1/2 Mohawk and Shawnee, and 1/2 Welsh, who builds period rifles, plus throws a mean tomahawk and knife!) from New Manchester, WV; and the Benson family from Ripley, WV: Marlin (who was cooking made-from-scratch biscuits in a cast iron pot over an open fire, that were delicious, by the way!), and Beckey (who was spinning wool from sheep and angora goats and llamas that they raise themselves), and Casey (who was sitting in the shade reading--which would have been my favorite activity!). John and I both learned so much from talking with all of these people. They really knew their frontier history, and they seemed to love sharing it! Next year they expect to have about 40 camps set up, which ought to make for a spectacular event for visitors of all ages.
     By 5:00 we had to catch the last run of the sternwheeler which would take us back across the river to our car. As we drove back home we talked about how we both felt like we had made a few new friends that day, and how we thought that we could so easily just have pitched our own tent, made a camp, and stayed there with them!
If you would like more information about visiting Blennerhassett Island, go to  Blennerhassett Island State Park .

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