The island where it happened

Visitors to Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park can explore the place where disgraced former vice president Aaron Burr made his last attempt to become king of something. (Photo courtesy of Greater Parkersburg CVB and the Stonewall Group)

Thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit musical, Hamilton, most Americans know how and where Alexander Hamilton’s story ended: in a duel with Aaron Burr in Weehawken, New Jersey, in July 1804 — Burr killed Hamilton and became persona non grata among the Eastern political elite.

Fewer Americans know what became of Burr after that infamous duel. Ohioans and West Virginians, however, are among the fortunate who can take a day trip to Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park (BISP) and explore the place where Burr made his last attempt to become king of something.

The park is in a gorgeous sylvan setting in the middle of the Ohio River between Marietta and Parkersburg, part of the West Virginia state park system. Along with a fascinating bit of history, it offers plenty of natural beauty and fun activities for the whole family.

Visitors are transported back in time the minute they step onto the Island Belle, a steam-powered sternwheeler that departs Parkersburg from May through October. Visitors may hike, bike, take wagon rides, and picnic on the island. Docents in period-appropriate clothing take visitors through the accurately rebuilt mansion, decorated according to its time in history, and tell the tale of the island’s part in a strange bit of U.S. history.

Burr and Blennerhassett

A few years before the infamous duel, in 1797, an Anglo-Irish aristocrat named Harman Blennerhassett and his wife, Margaret, bought part of the island. They carved space out of the wilderness to build an imposing Palladian-style mansion and furnished it with the finest goods from England and Ireland: paintings, sculptures, Oriental rugs, alabaster lamps, and marble clocks.

The estate included a 2-acre flower garden and was considered the most beautiful home in the country west of the Alleghenies. The island “Eden” drew the attention of travelers plying the Ohio River, and the Blennerhassetts were known to be gracious hosts. Among their visitors was the former vice president, Burr.

Burr visited Harman and Margaret for the first time in 1805, a year after the duel. Having lost his political influence and in search of funds, he’d undoubtedly heard about the Blennerhassetts’ opulent lifestyle. After three visits, the couple had been charmed by the witty and persuasive Burr, and by 1806, Burr was using the island, and the couple’s funds, to stockpile weapons and supplies — and militiamen.

Historians are divided on the exact intent of Burr’s scheme, but many think it was a plan to invade the Spanish-owned territory that’s now Texas and create a new, independent nation there.

When then-President Thomas Jefferson got wind of the military exercises, he dubbed it a treasonous plot to separate the American West from the Union and had Burr and Harman Blennerhassett arrested. Blennerhassett was released only after Burr was ultimately acquitted of treason in 1807. Both men’s reputations and finances were irreparably damaged by the scandal, and both finished their lives in obscurity. Sadly, Virginia militiamen occupied and plundered the Blennerhassett Mansion shortly after the arrests, and irate locals burned it to the ground in 1811.

Today, there are numerous special events at the Blennerhassett Island State Park throughout the summer and fall, but the pinnacle may be “Mansion by Candlelight,” when visitors can experience one of the Blennerhassetts’ legendary parties at the carefully reconstructed mansion.

During the annual event (Oct. 11 and 12), visitors time-travel to the year 1805. On this evening, Harman and Margaret greet guests at the entrance, and music and dancing fills the mansion, while elsewhere on the island, the Servants’ Party features a bonfire, cloggers, ghost stories, and fortune-tellers.