Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Blennerhassett Island: Part 1

Five granddaughters and I made the trip to Blennerhassett Island State Park last Tuesday, after being disappointed by the park being closed on Monday. The trip was worth the extra drive. First, we had to ride the ferry over, because the island is only accessible by boat. The girls lined up at the rail to watch the water go by. It was, as you can see, a lovely summer day.
The ferry had a classic wood steering wheel and I was taking a picture of it when the Captain said, "oh, you can do better than that!" And let Hannah drive the boat.
Whoa! Allison got a turn at the wheel too.
On the island, we took care of first things first--a picnic under the spreading trees. We didn't bring fancy food--just peanut butter, elderberry jelly, bananas, apples, etc. It was simple and good.

The girls tried and failed to circle one of the gigantic trees on the island.
In the right background, you can see one of the horse and wagon teams that provide guided island tours for visitors. We took one of those trips later in the day, but first the girls wanted to see what we had come for: Blennerhassett mansion.


I will have another post with photos of the mansion, but first I want to tell you a short--very short-- history of this place so you will understand why it was a must-see for us last week.
In the late 1790's, Harman Blennerhassett shocked his friends and family by marrying his niece in Ireland. The young couple had to flee the disapproval of their families and set sail for America. They were quite wealthy; Harman had inherited a sizable fortune, and even Margaret would later come into money of her own.
When they landed in New York, the Blennerhassetts began looking for land. They wanted land in the wilderness, where they proposed to build a mansion and a veritable Eden. They eventually made their way to Pittsburgh and purchased the upper half of Belpre Island. The island later became known as Blennerhassett Island.
The couple followed through on their plans and built a lovely mansion on the crest of a little rise of land on the island. The home was visible from the Ohio River and travelers marveled to see such a place in the frontier country. Everyone was welcome and the Blennderhassetts entertained both the famous and the unknown in their stately home.
But money only goes so far. A laboratory, conservatory, extensive gardens, imported building materials and furnishings and lavish entertaining drained their fortune. Enter Aaron Burr, former vice president of the US.
Burr was on the run after the deadly duel with Alexander Hamilton in Weehawken, NJ. While in hiding he became acquainted with a scheme to establish an empire in the western US that would extend from the Ohio River to California. Burr and his partners in this enterprise would become the royalty of this new empire. While on his way to New Orleans to seek Spanish support for his plan, Burr stopped at Blennerhassett Island.
Harman, ever the romantic (and feeling the drain of his funds) saw the adventure as a way to recoup his fortune. Burr was well known for his persuasive, charismatic personality--and for his way with the ladies. I have often wondered if there may have been some sparks between Burr and the young Mrs. Blennerhassett but if there were, history did not record it.
President Jefferson heard of the plot to establish an empire and sent troops after Burr and Blennerhassett. They fled the island, Leaving Margaret and her children behind. The federal troops trashed the home and the island when the learned they had missed the conspirators. but Burr and Blennerhassett were eventually captured and put on trial. Neither was convicted of the charge of treason because no treasonable act had yet been committed. But the Blennerhassetts were financially ruined by the ordeal.
The story of Harman and Margaret goes on to a cotton plantation in Mississippi, where they lost the remainder of their fortune. They returned to the British Isles where Harman died in 1831 at the age of 67, a bitter man. Margaret returned to the US and lived in New York City until her death in 1842. She tried in vain to force the US Government to reimburse her for the losses the family sustained in the federal raids on her island home and for the costs of the treason trial.
The mansion burned to the ground in 1811. Only the foundation stones remained. But thanks to the efforts of local historical societies, it was rebuilt in the 1980's and '90's and is furnished with some of the original furniture and fittings.
The story is so romantic, so full of suspense and excitement, anger, reproach, and the early history of America that I am amazed it has not yet been developed into a major motion picture (I've only touched on the high points here). It would be a stunning show.

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