Road trip reveals the many natural and scenic wonders of West Virginia.


April 20, 1997|By Jack Severson | Jack Severson,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

The trip began with a simple idea: A visit to relatives in Parkersburg, W. Va., with a side trip to a new crafts center near Beckley in the heavily touristed area of southern West Virginia. Then it got longer: During our stay, my wife's cousins suggested we extend our weekend and explore some of the great natural beauty to be found in that part of the state.

It was good advice. When we took out our maps, we saw that we could make the swing through southern West Virginia, then cross into Virginia and return via the lovely Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley.

While 1,000 miles may seem a bit much for a four-day weekend, with 65-mph speed limits almost everywhere, the distances shrink substantially.

En route, we would marvel at the New River Gorge and the world's longest single steel-arch-span bridge; lunch at a state-park lodge beautifully situated on a cliff over the river and ride its cable car to water level to pedal around in a paddle boat; shop at a just-opened craft center displaying the work of West Virginia artisans; and stare in silent wonder at the great stone arch of Virginia's Natural Bridge -- originally surveyed by George Washington, once owned by Thomas Jefferson and long since a major tourist attraction.

One of the most pleasant surprises of the trip was Parkersburg itself. Not exactly known as a tourism center, the small city nonetheless has enough charm and history to make it a worthwhile detour, if not a destination in itself.

Parkersburg sits on the east bank of the Ohio River and one of its chief attractions lies about a mile and a half downstream -- Blennerhasset Island. Officially Blennerhasset Island Historical State Park, the four-mile-long island is home to the reconstructed Blennerhasset Mansion, several late 18th-century and early 19th-century buildings, a small crafts village, gardens and walking trails.

The island's historical significance stems from the fact that its owner, Harman Blennerhasset, held meetings in his mansion where Aaron Burr and several others plotted (depending on which historian you read) the establishment of an independent nation in the southwestern part of America; the return of the Colonies to Britain; or the overthrow of the U.S. government.

Blennerhasset, a member of the Irish nobility (or English, again depending on which historian you read), bought the island and ** began building a home there in 1798 for himself and his new bride -- a 15-year-old cousin, Margaret. Burr's plot was discovered, and the Blennerhassets were forced from their elaborate estate in 1806. After abortive projects in New Orleans and Canada, Harman Blennerhasset returned to England, where died.

Margaret Blennerhasset, a poet and writer, died of cholera in New York in 1842. She and her son, Harman Jr., who died in 1854, were buried in borrowed plots in a Manhattan cemetery.

There are docent-led tours of the stately home, which burned to the ground in 1811. After archaeologists discovered the building's foundation, it was reconstructed and decorated according to the information found among Margaret Blennerhasset's writings.

A walnut grove, a crafts village where local artisans demonstrate and sell their work, a refreshment stand, picnic tables and walking trails make a visit to the wooded 500-acre island a rewarding experience. Stern-wheel ferries operate every hour on the half-hour between the island and Parkersburg's waterfront Point Park ($5 round trip) between mid-April and Halloween. During the summer, larger stern-wheelers offer evening dinner and dancing cruises on the Ohio.

Ashore, you'll find the Blennerhasset name attached to two other institutions: the Blennerhasset Museum, at Second and Juliana streets (local archaeological and historical exhibits, and a video on the Blennerhassets themselves) and the Blennerhasset Clarion Hotel, an 1890s beauty that's registered as a national historic landmark, at Fourth and Market streets. Doubles run about $75, but even if you're not staying there, it's worth a stroll through the lobby to see the ornate decor. or, as we did, to stop in the friendly bar for a drink.

Parkersburg made it onto the map around the time of the Civil War, when oil and then gas were discovered in the area. The discoveries brought industry, and the small river town quickly developed into the region's commercial and industrial center.

Today, Parkersburg, with a population of about 35,000, boasts an expansive central park with a public swimming pool, jogging paths, lighted tennis and basketball courts and a lake with paddle boats. Residents can also boast that the nearby Grand Central Mall has not yet decimated their downtown, where stores, galleries and restaurants still flourish.

Beauty on the interstate

Leaving Parkersburg, we pointed the car south on Interstate 77. Putting the lie to every bromide you've ever heard about uninteresting interstates, Interstate 77 winds through some of the most beautiful mountainscapes east of the Rockies.

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