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Aaron Burr Schemed Here (Parkersburg, West Virginia)

If Parkersberg is known for anything, it's the jumping off point for tourists visiting Blennerhassett Island. The Ohio River site of a mansion built by Irish immigrants Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett in 1789.

Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park

Historian Thomas Jewett calls it "A strange mixture of elegant Palladian architecture, Irish country house comfort, with a look of Italianate Queen Anne villas of the nineteenth century."

Whatever you call it, the Blennerhassetts built their 18th century Xanadu after leaving Ireland under a cloud of scandal and intrigue.

Not only did Mr. Blennerhassett marry his niece – personally rescued from France's Reign of Terror – the then-ostracized aristocrat funded and led anti-English nationalist activities on his inherited Emerald Isle estate.

You can take the boy out of Ireland...

The Blennerhassetts' revolutionary fervor continued in The Land of the Free. Their undoing: they funded Vice President Aaron Burr's plot to hive-off America's south-western territories and establish a separate country.

Burr used the Blennerhassetts' opulent island as his military headquarters. When the Feds learned of Burr's plans, the Blennerhassetts and Burr beat feet. Mr. B and Burr were apprehended, arrested and brought to trial.

In December 1806, while the mansion's owners were on the run, the Ohio militia raided and ransacked "the grandest building west of the Appalachians" filled with "fine paintings, sculptures, oriental rugs, alabaster lamps, and marble clocks." Until it wasn't.

After a five-month trial, Blennerhassett and Burr were acquitted. The mansion's owner briefly returned to his island, but couldn't afford to restore his manse. Both Blennerhassetts died destitute and forgotten.

In 1811, the mansion burned to the ground. In 1973, West Virginia spent 18 years and a million dollars recreating the edifice.

Some 40k visitors stroll through the Park each year. And here's the kicker: I wasn't one of them.

The Blennerhassetts' recreated pile isn't on Parkersburg's wikipedia page, and the hotel receptionist didn't bring it up when I asked her for local points of interest. But I did wander into...

The More Important History of Parkersburg

On my way through Parkersburg's dissolute downtown to the non-palatial Hampton Inn, I caught sight of Parkersburg's Oil & Gas Museum.

It’s kinda hard to miss. Nor should you. Situated in a repurposed hardware store, the O&GM chronicles a far more important chapter of American history: the birth of our oil and gas industry.

The Engine of Prosperity

Forget Pennsylvania's claim to the title. Forget Texas' legendary Spindletop oil well. Forget Wikipedia's potted history. Parkersburg, West Virginia is where it all began.

In 1869, the Rathbone brothers were drilling a salt mine a few miles from the Little Kanawha River when up from the ground came a bubbling crude. They were the proud owners of the world's first oil well.

Lucky for the Rathbones, Scottish chemist James Young had just developed a process to refine oil into kerosene – a less expensive alternative to the whale oil illuminating America. Supply meet demand. Demand meet supply.

And so America's first oil boomtown was born. Set afire during the Civil War (take that Rebs!). Reignited at its conclusion.

An area that produced a billion barrels of oil and 18.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. With that much currently in reserve.

The World's Most Desultory Museum?

Parkersburg's Oil & Gas museum is like Tutankhamun's tomb as Howard Carter found it: treasures piled up anywhere and everywhere, with only a general sense of what one thing has to do with another.

The O&G's treasures are rare photographs and documents of the nascent oil industry and the [drill] bits and pieces that powered a nation to economic glory beyond an Egyptian pharaoh's wildest dreams. With the big stuff rusting outside.

Over two non-climate controlled floors and multiple rooms, the Museum is also the repository of a farrago of Civil War and World War Two memorabilia. And piles and piles of artifacts from Parkersburg's non-oil industrial past: ledgers, typewriters, drug store bottles, North and South Pole-visiting shovels and more.

Sending Out an S.O.S..

It blows my mind that West Virginia would spend a million dollars restoring an English toff's mansion for a relative handful of waterborne tourists and not transform the Parkersburg Oil & Gas Museum into a shrine to the industry that spurred the State's formation – and provided the lifeblood of our nation.

Come to think of it, today's oil companies should use the O&GM for PR. It should be an educational showcase of the innovation and determination of the oil and gasmen and women who lifted Americans out of poverty and helped protect our freedom for well over a hundred years.

Not to mention the political corruption and environmental destruction that accompanied the industry's evolution.

Actually, a reinvigorated museum should mention it. If West Virginia can "celebrate" the Blennerhassetts' [alleged] treason, they can admit their energy industry's downsides.

As George Santayana's said, "Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it."

To which I'd add, those who forget the past are condemned to mediocrity. A subject for another day. Another place.

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Jul 05

Finding historic sites is one of my favorite things to do on trips. Yesterday I stopped at a place that showed up on Google Maps. It's a county park that's a memorial for a traveling family of entertainers I'd never heard of. Google The Demoss Lyric Bards if you are feeling curious.

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