There’s this story you get told in school about history, and it’s fairly straightforward and simple. Which makes sense – elementary school kids aren’t historians trying to become specialists in one area of history or another. The goal is just giving students a general understanding of history and how we got to today. And that’s all well and good, but then you get to be an adult, and you read some obscure history fact that makes you pause and say, “Wait…what?”
Like how in 1805 Aaron Burr (yes, the guy from Hamilton) plotted to overthrow the United States government from a small island in the middle of the Ohio River.
To be fair, I knew this story as a kid since I took a field trip to Blennerhassett Island in 4th grade, but I got a shock later when, in reading about Aaron Burr, I came across the story and had a moment of “Wait…I’ve been there! I used to know this!” Still, it’s a wild story, and this tranquil island is not the setting you’d expect.
I’ll get to the history soon, but first I’ll give a brief summary of our trip in summer 2020. With COVID shutting down basically everything and cancelling most of our summer plans, we ended up doing a lot of day trips around West Virginia and Blennerhassett made the list! Our first stop upon arriving in Parkersburg, was to visit the museum. This is where you’ll buy tickets for the ferry, and though we could have rushed aboard immediately, we decided to delay for an hour and take that time to use the bathroom and visit the museum, which tells the story of the island and also has a lot of random weird pieces in its collection, like the death mask of Aaron Burr and a bunch of haunted-looking dolls.
We boarded the ferry around noon and rode out to the island where we started our tour with lunch. There’s a spacious covered area with picnic tables, and you can buy food or bring your own. If you choose to get your food on the island, I recommend getting a bag of Mister Bee’s potato chips with your meal since these are the only chips made in West Virginia (and also they’re really good). After eating, we took a tour of the Blennerhassett House (below) then moved on to the carriage ride around the island. The best deal for the tickets is to get all of these included, and this will also make up most of your day in the park. After that, we took some time to walk on our own and visited the second house on the island, which you can tour for free, and the hollow sycamore tree. After getting some ice cream, we boarded the ferry again and returned to Parkersburg. All in all, it’s a great day trip and a fun place to visit that will give you a story to tell!
Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett settled on the island that would bear their name in 1789 after fleeing Ireland. Reasons for this are varied, but it likely had to do with the scandalous fact that Margaret was Harman’s niece. But, since the couple was wealthy, they simply moved to Ohio and built a mansion on Blennerhassett Island. The mansion was completed in 1800, and the Blennerhassetts led a nice, peaceful life; the house was considered the most beautiful in the West, and the Blennerhassetts were widely known for their hospitality. Many notable people visited the island, and a plaque near the mansion today lists these visitors, though the most famous is probably Aaron Burr.
Though probably best known today as the man who killed Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr’s life after that duel is just as – if not more – fascinating. What is now known as the Burr Conspiracy probably began in 1804 as Burr’s political fortunes were declining (especially after his duel with Hamilton). Burr’s goal, essentially, was to create a new empire in Texas where he would rule. In 1805, Aaron Burr visited Blennerhassett island for the first time and convinced Harman to join his plan. Over the next year or so, Blennerhassett spent his entire fortune financing the plan, but then things started to go wrong. The aid Burr had been promised by Britain and Spain didn’t come through. Rumors were swirling on the east coast about Burr and his plans. And, in December 1806, Burr’s co-conspirator Wilkinson realized the plan would fail and wrote to President Jefferson about the plan.
In early December the U.S. government with combined militias from Virginia and Ohio attacked Blennerhassett Island. They first destroyed most of the boats and supplies that were stored in Marietta, Ohio, then ransacked the island and its mansion. Margaret Blennerhassett, who had been away at the time, returned to find the destruction on the island and promptly fled with her children. Harman, however, was still aligned with Burr. At the end of December, Burr’s “army” (less than 100 men) sailed from the Ohio River to the Mississippi and down to New Orleans where Burr learned of the reward offered for his capture. Ultimately, Burr was arrested and tried for treason. Though he was acquitted, his reputation was irreparably damaged, and he lived the rest of his life in obscurity.
Harman Blennerhassett was similarly arrested and released. Though the family returned to the island, they had by now lost their fortune, and when the mansion burned in 1811, they left the island for good. Both Harman and Margaret died in poverty, and their sons also led difficult lives. According to Ohio History Central, “One son simply disappeared after a night of drinking; another son starved to death in the attic of a building in New York; and the final son died while serving in the Confederate military during the Civil War.” Though the story doesn’t end well for those involved, it’s a fascinating bit of history that happened on the Ohio River!
For more information on the history of the Blennerhassetts, check out Ohio History Central’s pages on Blennerhassett Island and Harman Blennerhassett or the PBS American Experience feature on The Burr Conspiracy . Though I haven’t read it yet, the most popular book on the subject is James E. Lewis’s The Burr Conspiracy.
A Modern Visit
When stopping at the museum to buy tickets, you’ll see all the main attractions of Blennerhassett: The museum, the ferry ride, the mansion tour, and a carriage ride. If you’re planning to make a day out of the trip, your best bet is to get the ticket that includes all of these. The museum can be explored at your own pace and is a good way to kill time while waiting for the ferry.
The mansion is the main attraction of the island, and a tour will give you an idea of life during the 18th century – though obviously not a middle-class life. This is also where you’ll learn a bit more about the Blennerhassett family if you didn’t pay attention in the museum. It’s a beautiful place to take pictures that will advertise where you went, and the building is pretty impressive…though I also just like Palladian architecture and at one point wrote a lengthy paper on it for an art history class, so other people might not like the building as much as I do.
The carriage ride is your main way to see the island. You can also walk or bike, but the horses add a little something extra to your trip back to the 18th century. The guides are also very friendly and will tell you more about the island as you go, including some of the more modern details about how it is maintained. Oh, and you can pet the horses when you’re done!
More Ways to Explore
Walking and biking around the island are relaxing ways to spend the afternoon, though it may get hot and humid since the park is only open from May-October. If you decide to only walk a short way however, you’ll find Main Shade (also known as the Putnam-Houser House) and the sycamore tree just past the Blennerhassett Mansion. Main Shade is a smaller house, though it’s worth walking through in my opinion because you can see what a slightly more ordinary 18th century life was like and you’ll probably get jump-scared by a wax figure. The sycamore tree is a fun stop on the island because, like many old sycamores, it’s hollow inside, and you can stand upright inside it, which is just a cool thing to do!
What to Bring
A camera: There are lots of great places to take pictures on Blennerhassett, and if you don’t bring a camera, you’ll wish you had!
Sunscreen and Bug Spray: You’ll be visiting in the summer, so both of these are essentials.
Sunglasses: See above
Money: Useful for tipping carriage drivers and buying food
Comfortable Shoes: Even if you aren’t planning to walk or bike the whole island, you’ll be doing enough walking that you’ll want good shoes for it.
A book (optional): Blennerhassett is a beautiful island and a lovely place to relax, so it can be nice to just take a book and find a place to read somewhere on the island. Also when you’re waiting for the ferry to and from the island, it will give you something to do.
When planning your trip, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, when going to Parkersburg, you’ll be going specifically to the Blennerhassett Museum of Regional History where you’ll be able to buy tickets for the ferry and activities on the island. There is parking near the museum where you’ll be able to leave your car for the day, though keep in mind that you’ll likely be leaving it in the sun, and your car will get hot as the day goes on. If you prefer to park closer to the ferry departure point, that is an option, though there’s not a lot of walking either way.
To get to the ferry from the museum, you’ll walk along 2nd street until you reach the Ohio River (about a quarter of a mile). You can also drive this route assuming there is parking available at the riverfront. The ferry leaves from and returns to Point Park (which you can also explore with extra time before or after your trip to the island). During peak season, the earliset departure will be around 10 am and you’ll be able to stay on the island until 4:30 or 5:30 pm, though this varies by day. In late summer and fall, the hours are further limited, so you’ll probably want to check in advance. For a safe bet, you can plan to take the 11 am or 12 pm ferry out and spend 2-3 hours on the island.
Finally, the park is day-use only, so there is no camping or other lodging on the island. Also, keep in mind that operation is only from May-October, and opening/closing dates may change depending on the year.
Expanding Your Trip
North Bend State Park
North Bend is a great park for walking and biking, especially along the North Bend Rail Trail, which in its entirety is 72 miles long. This is also the closest place to camp near Blennerhassett, so it can be a great add-on to a weekend trip here. There are lots of opportunities for outdoors fun, and it’s open year-round! There are also cabins and a lodge with a restaurant, so you can top off a day of hiking with a warm home-cooked meal!
If you prefer to stay in Parkersburg, the Blennerhassett Hotel can be a fun option just to stop by or to stay in. The building is over 130 years old and many people claim to have seen ghosts here, so if you want to lean into the spooky side of history, this could be something to look into! There are various haunted tours, including overnight packages for those who are really hoping for some paranormal activity. Or, if you prefer, you can just visit this historic hotel with 19th century charm and enjoy a fun evening – that may or may not involve ghosts.
For a place with such an insane history, Blennerhassett Island is a peaceful park today and a great place for a summer day trip! Personally, I love the story of the Burr Conspiracy because of its twists and turns and the crazy idea of Burr’s Texas Empire that you don’t really learn about in history class. The history of the Blennerhassett family is just as intriguing as you learn how this family revered for their hospitality and the beauty of their Palladian mansion careened into treason and tragedy. The story seems somewhat at odds with the island of today, but I also enjoy that juxtaposition of visiting a nice calm place that was once a site of upheaval. And whether you visit for the history or the horses, it’s an excellent place to visit!