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The Trials and Tribulations of Harmon Blennerhassett
by Ben Crookshanks

"Eden on the River” was the term Mrs. Harmon Blennerhassett used to describe her and her husband’s island home on the Ohio River. But it was not to last.

Life is a series of decisions and Harmon Blennerhassett was one of those unfortunate individuals whose decisions were always landing him in trouble and eventually ruined his life.
Blennerhassett, a direct descendant of King Edward III, was born to wealth and aristocracy in Hampshire, England in 1765. He studied law at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Upon his father’s death, he inherited the family fortune. At the age of 31, he married his 18-year-old niece. That outraged her family. She was disinherited and the couple were ostracized. His troubles were compounded when it was found out he belonged to the “Society of United Irishmen.” The British government viewed this as treason. So Blennerhassett, branded a traitor by his country and a scoundrel by his in-laws, gathered up his wife and vast fortune and set sail for America in 1796.

After arriving in America, they headed west looking for a place to settle down. Traveling the Ohio River by keelboat, they saw and fell in love with Backus Island, two miles south of present day Parkersburg, West Virginia. Blennerhassett bought the upper end of the island and began construction of his dream home in 1798. The couple renamed it “Isle de Beau Pre.” While building was going on, they lived in an abandoned blockhouse left over from the Indian Wars.

Although there was no stone for a foundation, they had an abundance of the finest lumber in the world for building. The island was covered with huge virgin oak, walnut, chestnut, maple and poplar trees. Construction took 2 1/2 years. When it was finished in 1800, the result was indeed impressive. The Palladian styled mansion contained 7,000 sq. ft. of floor space. Bear in mind, this was an era of one and two room log cabins. The Blennerhassett’s filled the mansion with the finest furniture money could buy from Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and England. These all had to be hauled across the rugged mountains by wagon, then floated down the river. There were such things as fine paintings, sculptures, oriental rugs, alabaster lamps and gold and marble clocks in the rooms. One room was paneled with polished black walnut. Not thin veneer paneling, but solid walnut boards. Outside was a flower garden covering over 2 acres. In a greenhouse, they grew a variety of exotic trees—orange, lemon, citron and fig.

The Blennerhassett’s were known far and wide for their lavish parties. A steady stream of well known people made a pilgrimage to this “Eden on the River.” On this A-list were politicians, businessmen, wealthy plantation owners, entertainers and even visiting royalty.

One visitor would bring about Blennerhassett’s downfall. Former vice-president Aaron Burr came to the island seeking funding for his scheme to take over part of the southwest. Historians feel the area he had his eye on included present day Texas. Blennerhassett contributed money and the island served as a recruiting site for the invading army. In December of 1806, Thomas Jefferson issued a proclamation charging Burr and Blennerhassett with treason. The Virginia militia arrested both of them. Burr spent 57 days in jail. He was tried and acquitted. Blennerhassett never came to trial and was released. The mansion had been looted by the troops sent to arrest him. He never returned to the island. Instead, he returned to England, a broken man, where he died in 1831. For a while, the mansion was occupied by a tenant. In 1811, a slave left a candle too close to some hemp stored at the mansion. It caught fire and burned the building to the ground.

Archaeologists uncovered the foundation of the mansion in 1973. Restoration took almost $1 million and 18 years of work. The restored mansion was opened to the public in 1991. To get to Blennerhassett Island you take a 20 minute ride on a sternwheeler from Parkersburg.

If you would like more information about this piece of West Virginia history or would like to arrange a visit to the island, call (304) 420-4800 or 1-800-CALL WVA. Web site: www.blennerhassettislandstatepark.com.