PARKERSBURG, W.Va. — A beautiful mansion on an island in the Ohio River was once the home of Irish aristocrats, but scandal and treason caused the island to sit empty for over 150 years. Today, many locals insist the whole island is haunted by Native American and Irish aristocrat spirits.
The island is known as Blennerhassett Island after the famous couple that purchased the island in the late 1790s. Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett left their 7,000-acre estate in Ireland to immigrate to America due to political and social persecution. One part of the criticism stemmed from the couple’s marriage, as Harman was Margaret’s uncle. Shortly after purchasing the island, they started construction on the Blennerhassett Mansion, which was completed in 1800.
The family held extravagant parties with a guest list filled with the rich and famous. One frequent guest was former Vice President Aaron Burr. Harman ended up assisting Burr on a conspiracy to commit treason by forming a new country in the southwest United States. Along with providing financial support, the Blennerhassett’s offered to make their island a main base.
After the plot was discovered, the family fled down the Mississippi River, and the island sat empty and a fire in 1811 burned the mansion to the ground. Over a hundred years later, the original foundations of the mansion were uncovered, and the State of West Virginia rebuilt the mansion and turned the island into a state park.
Watch: Interview with Craig Pyles, Park Superintendent
Harman Blennerhassett was eventually arrested and imprisoned with Aaron Burr. Following his release, the family moved several times to Mississippi, Montreal, and Europe. Margaret went on to write poetry books about missing the island, making her West Virginia’s first poet. When Harman passed away, Margaret returned to the U.S., and she was originally buried in New York, but later was reburied on the island.
“If you read what [Margaret} writes, a lot of it is things about wanting to be home [and] wanting to be back on her island…but she’s in other parts of the world, and she can’t get back. She’s not allowed to come back,” said Jason Burns, a West Virginia storyteller, “and I was like, how much more of a West Virginia story can you get than someone screaming ‘Country Roads, Take Me Home’?”
But, before the aristocrats purchased the island, Native Americans settled on the island. Archaeological evidence suggests that there was a Delaware Nation village where the mansion was built and that Native Americans inhabited the island as late as 1767. So, along with Margaret and some of her children, many Native Americans are known to have been buried on the island.
“There are hundreds and hundreds of graves all over this property, and they’ve been documented for over the last 13,000 years,” said Scott Cain, a tour guide at the Blennerhassett Island
Swol’n with the rains or baffling with the snowExcerpt from “Desert Isle” by Margaret Blennerhassett
— Never again my heart such joy shall know —
Havoc and Ruin and rampant War have past
Over that Isle with their destroying blast.
Margaret’s ghost has been spotted all across the island, often with a book in hand. In one instance, a group of campers set up a campsite on the island complete with a tent and campfire. In the middle of the night, the group heard rustling, and they opened the tent to see Margaret’s ghost reading some of the books the campers brought with them.
“I think it’s very telling of the type of person I like to think of her as. You know, very intellectual, strong-willed woman who is living her best afterlife,” said Burns.
Author’s Note: Visiting Blennerhassett Island after hours is illegal and can result in an arrest.
Watch: Blennerhassett Island Tour Guide tells mansion ghost stories
Another legend about the mansion is that children are known to see other children that aren’t there. Some speculate that the children might be spotting baby Margaret, who was born on the island but did not survive infancy. But, others think that perhaps the ghost is a Native American child.
“It’s usually about a four or five-year-old girl will come over to their mom and ask, ‘Can I go play with the other girl that’s in the black walnut room?'” said Cain, “But there’s nobody here. That’s happened on two different occasions.”
The island is only open for tours from May to October, but the museum is open year-round and has a lot of relics from the island. Rates and hours can be found on their operating schedule that is published on their website.