CAWTHON'S CATHARSIS - Blennerhasset Was Fine Until He Got a Burr…


By Jack Cawthon

There is something almost mystical about the Ohio River. As a kid I would visit my aunt's farm on the New England Ridge, 12 miles south of Parkersburg, and look down at a big bend in the river and watch the boats. At night I would lie awake watching their searchlights sweep back and forth, lighting up the porch and the front of the house.

I learned about Blennerhasset Island in my West Virginia history classes, especially the eighth grade, when I won a Golden Horseshoe which was awarded to outstanding West Virginia history students who had placed at the top of a state standardized test. Jesse Bell, Jr. was the teacher and his students always did well. Three out of the four winners in Gilmer County the year I won came out of his class.

As we drove to my aunt's farm I could look down on the island. Years ago much of it was planted in corn during the summer, and I remember buildings, a barn and possibly the old brick Neal mansion.

I never thought much about the island until the movement began to rebuild the Blennerhasset mansion and open the island as a park. I don't recall what year we made our first trip over by sternwheeler, but the mansion wasn't completed at that time.

From that first trip there was something about the island that seemed to lure me back. Serving as I do as a part-time mystic up in Preston County, perhaps I was experiencing some off-duty hangover.

For one thing, it was peaceful and quiet. You can go over there and stroll around to your heart's content without a lot of people getting in your way, especially during weekdays. There are bicycles for rent and Brandon and I would get us a couple and pedal around the paths and byways to explore on our own. The last time we were there the old brick Neal house was crumbling and fenced off, but I needed only to gaze at it to dream of an island life. No man is an island, we are told, but some of us come close by being castoff peninsulas.

The first year I saw the Blennerhasset mansion replica I thought it looked hokey. It reminded me of a nouveau Yuppie creation along our own Yuppie Lake, although as far as I can determine no one has tried this particular piece of architecture up here. We have medieval English castles and modern WesBanco replicas, complete with attached drive-in wings, but no Blennerhasset reproduction. One thing for sure, if it costs tons of money and is in exceptionally bad taste we have it somewhere along the shining shores of Yuppie waters. The mansion cost the state one mill to construct. Surely some ingenious builder could do it out of cardboard and womanized wood, materials of choice nowadays, for a quarter of that amount and maybe twice the quality.

When I again saw the mansion it had had time to weather some, or maybe I had. It looked almost real, and when I went inside I felt a chill which may have come from the air-conditioning, a nouveau Blennerhasset feature.

The usual story of the island is that the snake in the person of Aaron Burr invaded Paradise and caused the expulsion of Adam and Eve, aka the Blennerhassets.

If you are going for your Golden Horseshoe accept this version and move on with the test, although you are probably too young to be reading this section of the Hur Herald. However, as I have gone down for the third time in the mainstream of life and my GH has somewhat tarnished I can kick around other theories, some of my own making.

No doubt Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel and killed him, and some would say there was then one less banker to deal with. However, this among other things, brought down the wrath of Thomas Jefferson on Burr's head. I personally dislike Jefferson as I feel he initiated birth for more than the Democratic party. He could speak out of both sides of his mouth and then write a memo disclaiming even that, which classified him as the ideal bureaucrap in my mind, and similar to some bosses I once had.

Anyway, Burr was floating down the Ohio. It was along trip from Pittsburgh to the Point. Burr was a known womanizer, which was legal at that time in history. There were few trystibles along the route except for a dusky maiden of the forest who may have been too fleet of feet, and a frontier mother or two with numerous consequences already from sweet-talking, or no talking but all-action men. So, when he saw the mistress of the island he may have decided on some much-needed r and r, or some other variant.

This is where my theory won't win any Golden Horseshoes and probably get a student kicked out of class instead, but I believe that Mrs. Blennerhasset may have been the saddle under the burr, so to speak, in the whole nefarious affair. The portraits I have seen of her would require more than a bottle or two of Geritol before I took notice, which may be an age-related factor, but she wouldn't turn my head in the local mall.

Burr has been accused of luring Harman away in a plot to form an independent colony somewhere down south. His plot, if it ever existed, and a jury found him not guilty, was only successful in later years when the coal barons carried it through to fruition in southern West Virginia. I hereby refer you to further readings in the Charleston Gazette, which usually expounds on the subject at least twice a week.

These are my personal opinions of a complex historical episode, and which you will have to admit makes the subject more interesting and a possible TV miniseries.

Blennerhasset Island is a good place to visit and I wouldn't mind living there, except during a 500-year flood occurrence. In that case no one can be an island without the help of the U. S. Corps of Engineers, second only to the Almighty in vast works, but far outspending Him in accomplishing them.

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