Sad legacy of the `big ducks'

SUN JOURNAL

History: At a rebuilt mansion on an Ohio River island, tourists learn about a couple who lived lavishly and lost it all.

October 22, 2003|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PARKERSBURG, W.Va - What a curious spot for a scandal - an elaborate late-18th-century mansion on a wilderness island in the Ohio River, home to European aristocrats known for their fancy soirees.

But here in this high-society homestead carved out of the western frontier by Irish-born businessman Harman Blennerhassett and his wife, Margaret, a plot took shape in 1806 that led to what many historians consider the greatest criminal trial in American history.

Aaron Burr, who had just stepped down from the vice presidency under Thomas Jefferson (and who is perhaps best known for fatally shooting Alexander Hamilton in a duel) wanted to use the island to stage troops for an invasion of the Southwest and persuaded Blennerhassett to join the plot.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in The Sun Oct. 22 reported that Walt Whitman was a visitor to Blennerhassett Mansion on an island in West Virginia. Though Whitman, who was born in 1819, reportedly visited the island, he never visited the mansion, which burned down in 1811. The Sun regrets the error.

When Jefferson got wind of the scheme, he had the two men arrested for treason.

Blennerhassett was eventually freed from jail when Burr was acquitted, but his halcyon days came to a crashing end. The dazzling couple who had read Rousseau, followed their imaginations west and come to embody the American pioneering spirit seemed thereafter haunted by a curse.

"Their life is full of so many improbabilities that it reads like a TV soap opera or potboiler novel," says Ray Swick, the historian of the West Virginia state park system.

Their journey began in 1796, when the newly married Blennerhassetts left Ireland, largely because their families frowned on the union. Harman, the son of a wealthy Irish landowner, was English-born Margaret's uncle, their union forbidden by church but not civil law.

Also key to the decision was an attempted revolution in Ireland that, if unsuccessful, could have meant imprisonment or execution for Harman Blennerhassett, then an officer in a society of Irishmen plotting to free the country from English rule.

Once in the New World, the couple continued west on the Ohio River until, 1 1/2 miles downriver from Parkersburg, they encountered a lush 500-acre island rich with hardwood groves, long beaches, sprawling fields and abundant waterfowl.

The spot, then called Belpre Island, was first settled by Ice Age hunters about 9,000 years ago and inhabited almost continuously by Native Americans until white settlers began moving to the Ohio Valley in the 1780s. In the 1760s, the island was home to the Delaware Indian Nemacolin, renowned for blazing a trail across the Appalachian mountains that was retraced by early explorers and travelers.

The Blennerhassetts bought 169 acres and created their own little paradise: a 7,000-square-foot Palladian-style mansion with a dome-like ceiling, semicircular walkways, porticos linking the main building to a huge summer kitchen on one side and Harman's study on the other. The walls were painted and papered in bold colors in the fashion of the time, the rooms lavishly adorned with marble fireplaces, Oriental rugs, alabaster lamps on silver chains, gilt-framed mirrors and gold clocks.

At the time, most people were living in 15-by-18-foot log cabins. "The gap between the Blennerhassetts and most of their neighbors was almost medieval or Oriental in its length," Swick says. "They were considered almost celestial beings."

And they selected the remote location for precisely that reason. "They wanted to be big ducks in a little pond," he says.

They embraced the requirements of noblesse oblige, throwing an endless succession of parties, musicals, theatrical readings and balls, attracting such well-known visitors as Johnny Appleseed, Walt Whitman and Gen. James Wilkinson, then commanding general of the U.S. Army.

Ordinary folks traveling down the Ohio River were awed. "They came around the bend and saw this big, beautiful, white, stark house," says Donna Smith, the state park's superintendent, who lives in a log cabin on the island. Travelers gave it such nicknames as "enchanted island," "Eden" and "paradise."

Margaret Blennerhassett, a charismatic, athletic woman who rode horses in a scarlet riding habit with long white gloves and an ostrich plume in her hat, wrote poetry, much of it about her beloved island.

The couple, both avid readers, developed one of the West's largest libraries, collecting about $1,200 worth of books - equivalent to $40,000 today - that filled floor-to-ceiling bookcases. Here, Harman Blennerhassett composed music, studied medicine and met with visitors, among them Aaron Burr, who stopped by in May 1805 on his first western trip.

Burr had just stepped down from the vice presidency and wanted to mount an invasion - most likely of northern Mexico, historians believe - in a bid to separate the West from the rest of the union and create his own dominion. He saw the island as a good place to recruit troops. In 1806, he visited again.

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